NATO, Rebels Agree on Number of Weapons to Be Collected in Macedonia

NATO and Macedonia's ethnic Albanian rebels reached agreement Friday on how many weapons the militants will hand over, and the alliance said it hoped to collect about a third of the arms by the end of next week.

Gen. Gunnar Lange of Denmark, the NATO commander in Skopje, did not release the weapons figure but told reporters that NATO and the rebels had agreed on a number and it was being submitted to the Macedonian government for review.

The government has hotly disputed the rebel National Liberation Army's claim that it has just 2,000 weapons, insisting the number is closer to 85,000.

"The first figures from the NLA were starting figures and not really credible, so they required some reassessments and further discussions," Lange said. "I believe the numbers are now credible and close to our intelligence assessments."

Lange said NATO's mission to collect and destroy the weapons would begin next week at about 15 collection points in the cities of Kumanovo, Tetovo and Debar. He predicted that a third of all the arms would be in NATO's hands by the end of the week.

Both the rebels and government forces were to begin withdrawing Friday from areas near the collection sites in order to provide NATO forces with some "breathing space," Lange said.

NATO officials have been reluctant to speculate on weapons figures, arguing that the point of the mission is to build trust -- to persuade the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian sides to use the weapons handover as their first mutual confidence-building measure.

Underscoring the risks of the mission, scattered small-arms fire broke out overnight in Macedonia, police said Friday.

Police sources speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press that gunfire was reported in northwestern Macedonia near Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city. No injuries were reported, and it was not immediately clear who did the shooting.

Hundreds of NATO soldiers arrived Thursday for the British-led mission, but their preparations got under way amid some doubts that the operation will bring peace to the troubled Balkan nation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that he had "great doubts" the British-led mission would be able to reconcile Macedonia's warring sides.

"Strictly speaking, to seize the arms is not the main task," Putin said on a visit to Ukraine, which has been criticized for selling helicopter gunships to the Macedonian government. "The main task is to create conditions in which peace comes to this land."

In Germany, the Cabinet approved a proposal to send soldiers to Macedonia to join the 3,500-member -led mission, but the action still faced a tough fight in parliament. Dissenting lawmakers worry that German troops could get caught in a quagmire if the NATO mission is extended beyond its 30-day deadline.

Adding to the overall uncertainty in Macedonia, a political crisis erupted Thursday when a key ethnic Albanian political party threatened to pull out of the broad-based government created in May to help the country avoid all-out war.

The Party for Democratic Prosperity objected to Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's efforts to fire the justice minister, an ethnic Albanian, for failing to arrange the extradition of an alleged ethnic Albanian rebel leader detained in Germany.

NATO's ruling council authorized the mission despite scattered cease-fire violations recorded since Macedonia's political parties signed a peace accord Aug. 13. Although the ethnic Albanian rebels didn't sign the agreement, they have agreed separately with NATO to disarm.