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NATO strikes weapons agreement

Greek troops
Greek troops on the move in Macedonia  


SKOPJE, Macedonia (CNN) -- NATO troops have been streaming in to Macedonia poised to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels next week.

NATO commanders and rebel officials have agreed on how many weapons must be turned in under Operation Essential Harvest. It is said to be in the area of 3,000.

Meanwhile NATO troops said they witnessed a major barrage of machine gun and mortar fire, the most serious breach of the cease-fire they have seen for days.

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British paratroopers described sustained firing for over an hour around the villages of Ratae, Trebos and Neprosteno along the front-line valley separating Macedonian forces to the south from ethnic Albanian rebels to the north.

From their vantage point high on the hills overlooking Macedonia's second city of Tetovo, 25 miles west of the capital Skopje, they saw tracer fire through the mist, but could not be sure which direction it was moving in.

CNN's Senior International Correspondent Walter Rodgers reported that the agreed number of weapons to be collected will be put to the government in the former Yugoslav republic.

He said rebels and the Macedonian army were pulling back their heavy weapons in preparation for the arms collections to begin early next week.

Danish General Gunnar Lange, the NATO commander in Skopje, did not release the weapons figure but said Operation Essential Harvest hoped to have about a third of the insurgents' arms in hand by the end of next week.

The fiercely nationalist Macedonian Interior Ministry estimated that the militants had 85,000 weapons. But rebels in the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) first said they were willing to hand over just 2,000.

"The first figures from the NLA were starting figures and not really credible, so they required some reassessments and further discussions," Lange said. "I believe the numbers are now credible and close to our intelligence assessments."

Lange said NATO's mission to collect and destroy the weapons would begin next week at about 15 collection points in the cities of Kumanovo, Tetovo and Debar.

NATO's 'Operation Essential Harvest'
Numbers of troops pledged so far:
Belgium 90
Canada 200
Czech Republic 140
France 535
Germany 500
Greece 410
Iceland 1
Italy 700
Netherlands 250
Norway 40
Spain in discussion
Turkey 150
UK 1,900
Portgual has pledged 5 minedisposal experts and Hungary41 civilian ammunition disposalexperts.

The U.S. is not committing troopsbut contributing equipment, logistics and medical supportand unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

Rodgers said the key date is next Friday when the Macedonian parliament will decide whether the rebels have given up a sufficient strength of their armaments to ratify the arms handover. A two-thirds majority is required.

If the quantity of arms offered is considered a good faith effort, political reforms will follow. If it is not, a Western diplomat told him: "It is no longer a matter of peace but war."

Rodgers said that NATO was worried about the quality of the weapons handed over. If it was just AK-47 semi-automatic machine guns, it would be less than reassuring, he said.

If there were mortars, rockets, rocket propelled grenades and land-mines there would be a much better chance of the cease-fire holding after NATO's withdrawal, Rodgers said.

Rodgers added that there was concern among NATO troops about unexploded armaments and minefields newly laid by both sides.

There were also reports, he said, that some guerrillas were trying to smuggle new and replacement arms across the border from Kosovo. Others, he said, were transferring weapons out of Macedonia to prevent their collection by NATO forces.






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• Operation Essential Harvest
• NATO
• Macedonian government
• National Liberation Army

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