SKOPJE, Macedonia – NATO moved ahead Sunday with preparations to collect weapons to be voluntarily handed in by ethnic Albanian rebels despite its failure to reach an agreement with the Macedonian government on how many arms to expect.
Both Macedonian security forces and the rebels have agreed to pull back from sensitive areas in order for NATO troops to set up one-day weapons collection points as part of a peace plan, alliance officials 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.
According to the 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, 43 miles southeast of the capital, Skopje.
The process will then be repeated in other areas for the duration of the 30-day NATO mission, known as Operation Essential Harvest. Each collection point will be set up for about a day.
A senior NATO official speaking on condition of anonymity described the rebel plan for turning in weapons as "credible." Fighters "would be extremely reluctant to get rid of," the weapons offered on the list, the NATO official said.
But for the plan to be successful, NATO must agree with the Macedonian government on how many weapons to expect.
The peace deal that ended six months of fighting between rebels and government forces envisions a step-by-step process in which rebels will hand over weapons to NATO in exchange for political reforms in Macedonia.
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 parliamentary procedures called for in the peace plan.
Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said NATO and the rebels had agreed 3,000 weapons should be surrendered. The alliance has not released a figure.
The Macedonian government has claimed the insurgents have 85,000 weapons, while the rebels have put the number closer to 2,000. Western observers described the higher government figure as an attempt by hard-liners within the government to obstruct the peace deal.
But the NATO official underlined that the point of the weapons collection was to serve as a starting point from which to build trust between the two groups.
"Nobody has asked anyone to give up every weapon in the Balkans," he said.
NATO had presented President Boris Trajkovski with a figure on Friday, and the continuation of discussions Saturday fueled speculation on the extent of the rebel arsenal. The alliance downplayed the dispute over weapons numbers, insisting the government has simply asked for clarification over figures NATO has suggested.
"We have great confidence that this process is going to move forward and that our numbers will be accepted as being realistic," said Maj. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for NATO forces in Macedonia.
But Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said figures as low as 3,500 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."
But NATO insisted the process was on track and its troops should be able to begin the process in the next few days.
"We have every confidence that ... the collection sites will be able to begin on Monday as planned," Johnson said.
In another step toward building confidence between the two sides in Macedonia, the rebels allowed staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Macedonian prisoners they have been holding, the agency said.
"The process (of visits) has started," said Amanda Williamson of the ICRC. "We have a list of 26 prisoners."
It was unlikely that all 26 would be released at once, Williamson said, but declined to reveal any other details.