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NATO Disarmament Mission in Macedonia Begins Thursday - 2001-08-22

A battalion of British paratroopers is due to arrive in Macedonia Thursday to begin weapons collection from ethnic Albanian guerrillas. The deployment follows NATO's approval of a disarmament mission to the former Yugoslav republic. Questions still remain about the details of the mission and what will become of ethnic Albanian rebel leaders.

The decision to deploy the initial 700 paratroopers came immediately after final political approval for the mission from NATO's 19 member nations.

Britain is due to play the lead role in the Balkans operation, which is called Operation Essential Harvest.

Speedy deployment of the disarmament mission is seen as key to preventing a loss of momentum in the peace process, following last week's signing of an accord by political leaders.

The NATO mission is limited to collecting weapons voluntarily surrendered by ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army - the NLA.

About 400 NATO troops are already in Macedonia, setting up camps in rebel-held areas in preparation for the mission.

One key factor in the mission remains undefined: how many arms will the NATO forces have to collect in order to declare the deployment a success?

NATO officials say they still have no target number, but Macedonia's hard-line interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, said Wednesday the NLA possesses 85,000 weapons, plus five million rounds of ammunition. He said that figure included 9,000 automatic rifles, 20,000 hand grenades and 20,000 mortar shells.

Macedonian public opinion has been skeptical that the 3,500 member NATO force will be able to collect all of the NLA's weapons within its strictly defined 30 day timetable.

An amnesty has been declared for NLA members, but the future of rebel leaders following demobilization remains unclear.

Despite widespread speculation that guerrilla chief Ali Ahmeti will enter political life in Macedonia, he has not yet announced his plans pending the implementation of the peace agreement.

However, Xhevat Ademi, one of the NLA's senior political leaders, told VOA that for him, the war is over. He says he turned in his uniform a week ago and will return to his previous position as secretary general of the hard-line National Democratic Party.

Mr. Ademi said he was optimistic that soon, all the pardoned NLA soldiers will return to private life, where, he said, "You'll see them freely in the cafes of Tetovo."