NATO's ruling council has authorized the deployment 3,500 troops to Macedonia to collect weapons from ethnic-Albanian rebels who have waged a six-month insurgency in the country.
The decision was made by what NATO calls the "silence procedure." If no member objects before a deadline, authorization goes ahead automatically.
Officials in Brussels say troops start leaving for Macedonia Wednesday, and commanders plan to begin collecting rebel weapons early next week.
NATO has set a 30-day time limit for the operation, called "Essential Harvest," but the countdown will not begin until all the troops are deployed, which is expected to take about 10 days.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson called the move to send the force a historic step for stability in the Balkans, but he also warned there will be difficult times ahead because extremists will try to derail peace efforts. "I have a message," Mr. Robertson said, "to those who believe in a violent or in a military solution and I say this to them. There is no solution in violence. There is only death, destruction, misery and poverty. A civil war in Macedonia would be a blood bath and solve nothing."
Mr. Robertson says that while there are risks in sending troops, the risks of not dispatching them are far greater. NATO officials have expressed fears that the fighting in Macedonia could trigger a wider conflict in the Balkans.
NATO hopes to build on the political momentum that started after a peace pact was signed last week by parties representing the ethnic-Albanian community and the Macedonian majority.
Mr. Robertson says the implementation of political reforms is a part of the overall solution to the Macedonian conflict, and he expects all the country's leaders to meet commitments to go ahead with these plans. The rebels say they are fighting for more rights for Macedonia's ethnic-Albanian minority, which makes up about one third of the country's population.