NIKUSTAK, Macedonia – Smoking and chatting, about 50 ethnic Albanian rebels — some still in their camouflage uniforms, others already in civilian clothes — waited for their commander to sign their demobilization papers.
The insurgents, who took up arms in February and thrust this ethnically divided Balkan nation to the brink of civil war, said they had already begun disbanding and planned Saturday to begin preparations to hand over weapons ahead of a NATO mission to collect and destroy their arms.
"We are going to show the world that we are for peace," their commander, a top rebel leader known simply as Adashi, told The Associated Press on Friday.
Adashi commands the rebel 114th Brigade that covers the capital, Skopje, and outlying areas such as Aracinovo, site of some of the heaviest fighting of the six-month-long insurgency. But now, he said, he's committed to dismantling his forces.
"The 114th Brigade isn't going to have any more soldiers," he insisted outside his headquarters in Nikustak, a village about 10 miles northeast of the capital, where most buildings bear the scars of shelling and rubble covers the main street.
"When all is finished, we want our fighters to have an everyday normal life like other citizens," Adashi said.
Although he refused to allow photographs, he said the disbanding had already begun and rebel leaders planned on Saturday to begin preparations to hand over their weapons to British-led NATO troops in an operation to begin next week.
On Friday, the NATO commander in Skopje, Gen. Gunnar Lange, said both rebel and government forces would begin pulling back from areas where NATO will set up weapons collection sites to give alliance troops some "breathing space."
But not everyone is convinced that the rebel National Liberation Army will abide by the agreement. Many Macedonians fear the insurgents' newer and more sophisticated weapons will be hidden in the hills or smuggled over the border to Albania and Kosovo and stashed away there in case they're needed again.
NATO repeatedly has said that its forces will not search for or confiscate any weapons, collecting only those to be handed in voluntarily.
NATO officials said Friday that they and the rebels had arrived at a mutually acceptable figure of weapons to be surrendered. Neither side revealed what the figure was, but Western diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity put it at 3,000, slightly higher than the rebels' initial claim of 2,000 arms. The Macedonian government has insisted the militants have as many as 85,000 weapons.
Adashi, a former officer in the Macedonian army, admitted that every gun won't be handed in. Some fighters may keep small arms for personal protection, he said.
"There will not be a single weapon here, except for a very low number — perhaps one percent — of pistols, which will be kept," he said.
It remained unclear whether the arms to be surrendered include at least two tanks and two armored personnel carriers captured by the NLA from Macedonian security forces. The rebels have said in the past that they will not hand in the vehicles but will destroy them instead.
NATO's 30-day mission is tentatively scheduled to begin Monday. By the end of next week, a third of the weapons should be in NATO's hands, Lange said.