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NATO Troops Awaiting Macedonia Go, No-Go Signal - 2001-08-21

Teams of NATO liaison officers are fanning out across northern Macedonia in advance of a possible NATO disarmament mission. A cease-fire between government forces and ethnic-Albanian rebels held up overnight.

Advance teams of British troops have met with rebel commanders in key villages held by ethnic-Albanian insurgents.

Although NATO leaders have not yet given the final go-ahead for a deployment of 3,500 troops, the meetings are preparing the ground for a quick entry of the force, if approved.

The weapons collection mission, dubbed "Operation Essential Harvest," is a follow-up to a peace plan agreed to by political leaders last week and accepted by the leader of the rebel National Liberation Army.

A key condition for the NATO deployment is a stable cease-fire that will allow international troops to carry out their mission unhindered. No incidents were reported overnight, giving hope that the often-violated cease-fire is finally taking hold.

But rebels near the northern town of Radusha made a triumphal show of a recently captured armored personnel carrier, mounting an Albanian flag on it and parading before television cameras. It was the first time the guerrillas were seen in possession of heavy armor.

Macedonian public opinion has been skeptical of the disarmament mission. Because the full size of the rebels' arsenal is unknown, many believe that there is no way to verify that all the weapons have been collected.

A NATO spokesman addressed the issue, saying a total number and quality of weapons will be agreed on with the government and the rebels in advance of the mission. He also said NATO is working through the Macedonian media to get out its message that the disarmament mission is in the interest of both sides seeking peace.