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NATO resumes Macedonia mission

Macedonian parliament
Macedonian politicians vote for peace accord  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- NATO troops have begun the second phase of Operation Essential Harvest, the mission designed to collect rebel weapons in Macedonia.

Ethnic Albanian rebels are to surrender more than 3,000 weapons as part of a peace deal work out last month between the country's leading Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian politicians.

In the first phase of the mission, troops collected 1,200 weapons, more than one- third of the weapons that rebels are supposed to turn over during the month.

The collections resumed on Friday after the Macedonian parliament voted 91 to 19 in favour of constitutional changes necessary for the peace agreement to be implemented.

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It includes measures to improve the rights of ethnic Albanians by giving the Albanian language greater prominence and providing more jobs for Albanians.

Ethnic Albanian leader Arben Xhaferi told the Associated Press news agency: "This vote was made by those who believe in the future of Macedonia."

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson called the move a "historic decision" that would help lawmakers "bring their country back from the brink of war."

The guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA) have pledged to hand in their weapons and disband in return for the reforms but the disarmament process was stopped while parliament approved the deal.

Western diplomats, increasingly confident that the NATO mission will collect 3,300 weapons from the rebels by September 26, are considering a further international security presence to prevent a relapse into violence.

"We are obviously extremely pleased that the decision (to launch reform) has been made with clear majority. We will now move as fast as possible into the second phase of weapons collection," NATO spokesman in Macedonia Mark Laity told Reuters.

After a delay that threatened to derail NATO's disarmament programme, parliament backed the reforms on Thursday that will decentralise power, allow greater official use of the Albanian language, recognise higher education in Albanian and give Albanians jobs in public service commensurate with their share of the population.

Minority Albanians form around a third of the 2 million population in the Balkans state.

'War is about to end'

A rebel brigade commander known as Commander Qeka told Reuters: "We were waiting for the vote and finally it has been achieved. This makes us 80 percent sure that the war is about to end and we're willing to continue our cooperation."

Hours after the vote, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten arrived in Skopje to present strong financial arguments for Macedonian leaders to move along the road to peace.

They are due to meet government and political leaders on Friday and are expected to announce a fresh economic aid package.

Another aim for Solana might be to sound out President Boris Trajkovski and other leaders on what international security assistance Macedonia wants in the longer-term.

With Macedonian-Albanian animosity still smouldering on the ground, Western authorities worry that the country could relapse into bloodshed after NATO's finishes collecting weapons.

Greater role for Russia

There appears to be growing international agreement that an international security component should be set up to avoid a vacuum after NATO's Task Force Harvest leaves, but it remains unclear what form or size it would be and under whose auspices.

American envoy James Pardew said on Thursday that Russia, which has smarted over its secondary role in Balkan peacekeeping missions since 1995, had approved the proposal of a new force and Moscow's participation would be welcome.

The European Union's Macedonia envoy, Francois Leotard, has called for a 1,500-strong EU contingent.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Thursday that an international force was the only way to secure the return of tens of thousands of refugees.

The state MIA news agency said Macedonia's security council of top officials supported an initiative by President Trajkovski "to look into a possibility of establishing a U.N. monitoring mission at the borders with Kosovo and Albania."

• National Liberation Army
• Macedonian government
• Operation Essential Harvest

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