SIPKOVICA, Macedonia – The armed struggle is finished in Macedonia, according to the leader of the ethnic Albanian rebels, who says the new task is to make sure the peace process holds.
As NATO troops begin collecting the weapons of his National Liberation Army, guerrilla leader Al Ahmeti said Macedonia's government and the country's ethnic Albanian minority in the end must "continue to live together."
Ahmeti, kingpin of the ethnic Albanian insurgency, rules his forces from this tiny mountain village, where the streets are stone and dirt and rebels in jaunty red berets swagger past the villagers or gallop by on horseback.
But Ahmeti seems to be trying to move away from fighting in the mountains and toward the carpeted drawing rooms of more typical leaders.
He's agreed to let his forces hand over 3,300 weapons to NATO troops in a mission set to last 30 days. NATO began collecting weapons in some areas Monday and was expected to move to the village of Sipkovica, 25 miles northwest of the capital, Skopje, on Tuesday.
Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has said the rebels retain 60,000 weapons. Ahmeti dismissed the latest disputes over the number of weapons to be collected as political posturing by hard-liners in Macedonia's government.
"I think this is all a political campaign," said Ahmeti. "Their greatest fear is that they will lose position."
Much hinges on his credibility, and whether he can persuade Macedonians that his efforts to end the six-month-old conflict are sincere.
The peace plan is a carefully calibrated document in which every rebel action is met with a Macedonian reaction. The rebels hand in a third of their weapons in exchange for acceptance by the country's parliament of a set of political reforms. The next third is received with the next set of reforms and so on. A snag anywhere along the line can scuttle the whole deal.
Underscoring Macedonian anxiety to the peace plan and the arrival of NATO led peacekeepers was the death on Monday of a 20-year-old British soldier -- killed after a youth hurled a block of concrete at his vehicle.
The death of Ian Collins, of Britain's 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, was the first to strike Operation Essential Harvest and it was an indication of the hostility NATO's mission could face.
The U.S. State Department condemned the violence but left little doubt that NATO forces would continue with their mission.
"Macedonia needs calm in order to proceed with disarmament and with the political action that's necessary," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
In Macedonia's second-largest city, Tetovo, about 200 angry Macedonians blockaded a road used by the military in an attempt to prevent the army from withdrawing heavy weaponry from its positions.
According to the disarmament plan, Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels are supposed to withdraw from positions where they are in close contact. The city of Tetovo is one of the tensest, and firefights continue in the wider area despite a cease-fire agreement reached earlier this month.
But Macedonians fear that without the army's protection, they could be attacked by the rebels.
"We made this barricade to prevent soldiers from pulling out," said Snezana Krstevska, 56, a Macedonian from Tetovo. "We will never leave and they can pass only over our dead bodies."
Many Macedonians blame NATO for the situation in their country, saying the alliance failed to stop the smuggling of weapons into Macedonia from Kosovo, believed to be a major supply route for the rebels. The Yugoslav province of Kosovo is policed by alliance-led peacekeepers.
On Monday, NATO gathered more than 300 assault rifles, between 60 and 80 light machine guns, 10 heavy machine guns and several anti-tank weapons, as well as mortars, ammunition, grenades and land mines in its first weapons collection in Otlja, a village about six miles west of the city of Kumanovo.
"Certainly this is a process that requires a lot of courage," Ahmeti said. "There is no reason to continue the fighting."