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Blast as NATO sets weapons target

British members of the NATO force prepare to collect rebel arms
British members of the NATO force prepare to collect rebel arms  


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Despite government misgivings, NATO says it expects to begin collecting 3,300 weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels on Monday.

Meanwhile, an apparent bomb exploded outside a restaurant in a predominantly Albanian neighborhood of the Macedonian capital of Skopje on Sunday night, Macedonian police told CNN.

The blast went off in a garbage container, police said. No casualties have been reported, and there was no immediate word on who might be responsible or what effect it might have, if any, on NATO's mission.

NATO officials announced its target figure for weapons collection earlier on Sunday.

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"On Friday we presented the government ... a figure of 3,300 weapons that the so-called NLA (National Liberation Army) had declared to voluntarily hand over to NATO," Danish Maj. Gen. Gunnar Lange, commander of the disarmament task force, told a news conference.

"The mission is still planned to be initiated tomorrow."

Lange said the government had not officially approved the list of arms for surrender, but that the terms of the NATO operation did not require such approval, Reuters reported.

Diplomats have said a lack of formal approval would not jeopardise the mission.

The rebels have agreed to surrender more than 2,950 assault rifles, 210 machine guns, 130 mortars and anti-tank weapons, six air defence systems, and two tanks and two armoured personnel carriers captured from Macedonian forces, Lange said.

The rebels also will surrender 600 mines and hand grenades, 1,100 rounds of mortar ammunition and 100,000 small arms rounds, Lange said.

NATO officials admit the rebels could easily restock their arsenal at any time.

"There are no guarantees and the path will not be easy but the alternative is clear," Lange said. "The alternative is war."

The number of arms to be collected from the rebels has been a point of contention between NATO and government officials.

The government has claimed the rebels have 85,000 weapons, but Western observers described the higher figure as an attempt by hard-liners within the government to obstruct the peace deal.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has said a low figure could hinder the peace process.

"We used to seize that quantity in a single raid," he said. "I think it is ridiculous to speak about 3,500 pieces six months after the outbreak of crisis. I think that if that figure stays we will not achieve anything."

NATO officials briefed government officials over the weekend on the operation and said Georgievski's comments would not jeopardise its timetable.

On Sunday, NATO was continuing to deploy troops in Macedonia ahead of the arms-collection mission.

Government security forces and the rebels have agreed to pull back from sensitive areas to allow NATO troops to set up collection points, NATO said.

The withdrawals "are designed to ensure there is no tension, or the least possible tension, prior to the weapons collection," said Col. Paul Edwards, chief of operations for the mission.

By early Sunday evening, however, government political leaders had failed to order their forces to pull back from areas surrounding drop-off sites, The Associated Press was reporting.

"Our regrouping will be simultaneous with the arrival and deployment of NATO troops," Macedonian defense spokesman Marjan Gjurovski said, according to the AP.

A senior government official told Reuters that "misunderstandings have been cleared up" and NATO arms collectors could start work on Tuesday at the latest.

The senior official said the National Security Council "concluded today, despite (the prime minister's) objections, that the NATO operation should go ahead because it would be unserious for us to stop it with NATO troops having already arrived."

According to the weapons-collection plan, British and French troops will fly by helicopter to an as-yet-undisclosed location on Monday to set up a one-day collection point where rebels will turn in their arms.

The area will be secured by two cordons of NATO troops, Edwards said.

Any unstable ammunition is to be destroyed on site, and the rest of the weapons will be transported to a staging area in Krivolak, 70 km (43 miles) southeast of the capital, Skopje.

The process will then be repeated in other areas for the duration of the 30-day mission known as Operation Essential Harvest.

The alliance hopes to collect about a third of the arms by the end of next week, in time for a key parliamentary meeting to launch the procedures called for in the peace plan.

As the preparation continued, local radio reported an exchange of infantry and artillery fire in the Kumanovo area northeast of the capital, Skopje.

Macedonian police accused rebels of provoking security forces who "responded adequately."

Also on Sunday, ethnic Albanian rebels released eight Macedonian hostages -- including two members of the Macedonian security forces -- in two separate handovers in rebel territory.

They eight were handed over to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the towns of Lipkovo and Radusa.






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RELATED SITES:
• Operation Essential Harvest
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