NATO and rebels agree on arms
SKOPJE, Macedonia (CNN) -- NATO commanders and Macedonian rebels have agreed on the number of weapons that will be handed over under Operation Essential Harvest.
The figure, thought to be more than 3,000, will be put to the government in the former Yugoslav republic later on Friday and an official announcement will then be made, CNN's Senior International Correspondent Walter Rodgers reported.
He said rebels and the Macedonian army were pulling back their heavy weapons in preparation for the arms collections to begin early next week.
General Gunnar Lange of Denmark, 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.
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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday called NATO's attempt to collect and destroy the weapons of ethnic Albanian rebels "long overdue" and urged the alliance to block supply channels, saying the conflict was spreading from Kosovo and other Balkan trouble spots.
"If we really want to take away all weapons, it is necessary to seal all the channels of their delivery to the region," Putin was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency after a meeting with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski on the sidelines of Ukraine national celebrations.
Putin echoed earlier Russian suggestions that the fighting spilled over into Macedonia because of the alliance's failure to disarm the Kosovo Albanian "terrorists."
Trajkovski thanked Putin for Russia's position on the conflict and for its role in the Balkans in general, the Interfax news agency said.
Trajkovski called for joint Russian and Macedonian efforts for peace in the Balkans and for an international conference on borders and human rights in the Balkans, the agency said.
"This is the only way to bring the region out of crisis," he was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, planes carrying 350 troops from Britain, Italy and Netherlands landed at the airport in the capital, Skopje.
Seven hundred were expected during Friday and 1,280 on Sunday.
In Greece an orthodox blessing was conducted for advance members of a 450-strong contingent of troops it was sending. In Germany, the Cabinet approved a proposal to send up to 500 soldiers, but the action faces some opposition in parliament from lawmakers worried that German troops could get caught in a quagmire if the NATO mission is extended beyond its 30-day deadline.
In addition to these and the main force of 1,900 British troops, other soldiers will come from France, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Turkey. No U.S. troops will play a direct role in the mission, but will provide logistic support.
The first of the Italian contingent to join the NATO force will leave Sardinia on Friday. Soldiers from the French Foreign Legion are already in the country.
There were some new clashes overnight with scattered small-arms fire. Police sources speaking on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that the gunfire was reported in northwestern Macedonia near Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city. No injuries were reported, and it was not immediately clear who did the shooting.
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