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NATO begins weapons harvest

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A French Foreign Legionairre (right) and an ethnic Albanian rebel watch the arms handover  


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- NATO troops have begun collecting ethnic Albanian rebel weapons and ammunitions as Operation Essential Harvest got under way.

NATO spokesman, Major Alexander Dick, told a press conference that several hundred weapons had been handed over.

The arsenal -- surrendered by ethnic Albanians who have been fighting for greater rights in Macedonia -- included an anti-tank weapon, 50 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, and 10 heavy machine guns.

About 300 AK47 assault rifles, between 60 and 80 light machine guns, several dozen grenades, rocket launchers and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition were also surrendered.

But CNN's Walter Rodgers said most of the weapons he saw on display at a news conference were museum pieces dating back as far as World War II.

Dick said: "Early this morning the weapons were effectively handed over to our force. They were sorted and checked for safety and they were laid out in their different weapon types.

"Subsequently, their serial numbers have been recorded and their weapon types recorded. As we speak the engineers are completing their task of bagging, tagging and boxing the weapons."

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CNN's Walter Rodgers: "Weapons belonged in a museum."
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He added: "My brigadier is happy that that is a good figure for our first weapons collections task.

"Crucially some of the key weapons we are looking at have been handed in, in particular the heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-tank mines."

But the start of the 30-day operation on Monday was overshadowed by the death of a British member of the NATO force.

NATO said the death of Ian Collins, a sapper with the 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, would not delay or derail the process.

Youths are being blamed for throwing the lump of concrete that killed the 22-year-old serviceman as he drove toward the capital Skopje on Sunday night.

"You either give up or crack on. And we're cracking on," one Western diplomat in Macedonia told Reuters news agency.

"If it was that easy to stop us, we wouldn't have come here in the first place."

Dren Korabi, a commander of the rebel National Liberation Army, told CNN that while the guerrilla National Liberation Army (NLA) was ''very sorry'' to hear about Collins' death, the operation to hand over arms was going ahead as planned.

In the region around Kumanovo, where NATO has set up the first of a series of weapons collection points, an NLA commander who goes by the name Shpati said on Monday: "We have started disarming."

Many ordinary Macedonians have been deeply skeptical about NATO's role, believing the alliance has no hope of disbanding the NLA and accusing it of helping rebels push a separatist agenda masked by human rights demands.

And unless NATO can show Essential Harvest is achieving results the nationalist-led Macedonian parliament may renege on pledges to enhance Albanian civil rights.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, a nationalist hard-liner in a government split between hawks and moderates, said NATO's plan to collect a total of 3,300 NLA arms was "ridiculous and humiliating."

Parliament convenes on Friday to pass the measures agreed at the negotiating table with ethnic Albanians.

Rebels
Armed rebels drive through the village of Matejce  

NATO, in an attempt to show the 30-day mission can achieve results hopes to collect up to one-third (up to 1,100 weapons) of the NLA's declared arsenal by Wednesday night.

"If we can get the first phase done by then, we have Thursday left to do more if problems arise," one diplomat said.

Georgievski said the true number of weapons held by the NLA was closer to 60,000.

Major-General Gunnar Lange, NATO mission's commander, denied the disarmament would be superficial, even though NATO admits NLA rebels can restock their arsenal at any time. There was no alternative to the alliance plan except war, he insisted.

"The turning in of 3,300 weapons plus an additional serious amount of other deadly armaments is not just a gesture," he said.

"It is a very real and substantial effort to remove the combat effectiveness of the so-called NLA."






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RELATED SITES:
• Operation Essential Harvest
• NATO
• Macedonian government
• National Liberation Army
• 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers

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