NATO general backs Macedonia plan
BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) -- NATO's top general has decided conditions are right for the deployment of a 3,500 member force to collect weapons in Macedonia, a NATO spokesman has said.
A decision on whether to send in the force will be made by NATO's North Atlantic Council on Wednesday after ambassadors consult their governments.
It follows a fact-finding visit to Macedonia on Monday by NATO's supreme commander, U.S. General Joseph Ralston.
NATO has said it will only deploy the troops if a cease-fire between the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian rebels holds.
"Generally speaking we have a cease-fire that is satisfactory," NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur said on Tuesday.
"Gen. Ralston will decide to give the go ahead for this mission to take place.
"We think military planners believe that the first troops could actually land within 48 hours after a decision has been made to activate the mission," Brodeur said.
"Full deployment will require about 14 days and then collecting starts for a period of 30 days. So I guess that within the next 15 days we would start collecting the weapons."
Brodeur said the troops will be armed and able to defend themselves if attacked.
However, he said the ethnic Albanian rebels had given assurances they will turn in their arms.
"We have a commitment from the insurgents. There is nothing at this stage to indicate that they will not honour that. We believe that they will deliver," said Brodeur.
Under a peace agreement signed by the rebels and the Macedonian government, as well as the majority Slav and minority Albanian political parties in Macedonia, the NATO forces will conduct a limited mission to collect rebels arms.
The rebels have said they were fighting to win equal rights for Macedonia's Albanian minority, which comprises about 22 percent of Macedonia's two million people.
An advance group of about 400 British soldiers is already in Macedonia checking on the ground whether the cease-fire will hold -- one of four conditions set by NATO before sending troops in.
Macedonia's government announced on Monday that its troops would pull back from front-line areas where NATO forces would go to collect arms.
Tension within Macedonia remained high on Tuesday after rebels were accused of destroying a monastery in Macedonia.
A Macedonian defence ministry source told Reuters it was "a provocation by ethnic Albanian guerrillas" that could have "serious consequences."
The incident is one of few involving religious monuments in six months of inter-ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslav republic.
Western monitors confirmed to Reuters that the attack had gutted the interior of the 14th century St Atanasius Church Orthodox monastery in Lesok, a flashpoint village behind National Liberation Army rebel lines, but said it was unclear who was to blame.
A Western diplomat in Skopje told the agency: "The NLA is not known to have attacked religious sites before."
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors are investigating the incident.
OSCE officials told Reuters that Lesok, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) northwest of Skopje just off a disputed road running to the Kosovo border, was already the source of major anger among the Macedonian majority, many of whom had been driven out by rebels.
Macedonian mobs have smashed several Albanian mosques in cities far from the northern conflict zone in retaliation for ambush killings of policemen and soldiers by rebels.
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