NATO Delays Macedonia Troops Choice

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NATO's ruling council decided Friday to postpone until next week a final decision on whether to deploy its full 3,500-member force to collect rebel arms in Macedonia, despite fears that its hesitation might threaten a hard-won peace agreement.

The North Atlantic Council said it wanted to wait for an advance team to report on the military situation in the country, expected Monday.

The council on Wednesday authorized a partial deployment of the task force — 400 men from Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade.

An advance party of about 40 was due into Skopje, the Macedonian capital, on Friday, to be followed by about 350 more over the weekend. These initial troops are mostly headquarters and communications personnel who will complete plans for the full deployment of what NATO is calling Operation Essential Harvest.

The NATO council must decide whether the risk of moving quickly to send a lightly armed military force into an unstable Balkans country, where sporadic violence has unsettled the cease-fire, is greater than the consequences of waiting and possibly letting the situation deteriorate.

Diplomats said the council, made up of ambassadors from NATO's 19 member countries, was pleased with the way the initial deployment is unfolding. That process was expected to be completed by the end of the weekend.

Waiting until early next week will allow a few more days to observe the situation and see if the cease-fire between Macedonian government troops and ethnic Albanian rebels is truly holding.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson has been pressing the council to act, and the decision could come early next week. Some members, including Germany and the Netherlands, however, must by law consult their parliaments first.

Ethnic Albanian rebels have been fighting the government since early this year, saying they want more rights for their minority.

The surrender of weapons is a key part of the political agreement signed Monday by the Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties.

"In particular, we are looking for a commitment on behalf of all the ethnic Albanian armed groups to abide by the agreement," said 16 Air Assault Brigade's commander, Brig. Barney White-Spunner.

NATO has insisted that this is not a mission to disarm the Albanians, but to collect weapons that the rebel forces will be turning voluntarily.