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NATO's  'Essential Harvest' Operation Aims to Disarm Rebels

NATO officials say Operation Essential Harvest will begin Monday, in spite of a dispute over the numbers of weapons to be collected from the ethnic Albanian guerillas and reports of new fighting.

Speaking in the Macedonian Capital Skopje, NATO's peace mission commander, Major-General Gunnar Lange, told reporters that his troops will collect 3,300 weapons from the ethnic Albanian gunmen.

They include two tanks, two armored personnel carriers, and 210 machine guns. The rest of the equipment includes anti-tank weapons, mortars, mines, and assault rifles.

But Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has described the figures as "laughable and humiliating for Macedonia", saying the real number of arms should be at least 70,000.

The authoritative British publication, Jane's Defense Weekly, reported Saturday that its intelligence sources say the rebels have 8,000 assault rifles, 250 heavy machine guns, 200 sniper rifles, up to 200 mortars and 50 shoulder launched missile launchers.

The magazine also said the insurgents have more than 15,000 obsolete bolt-action or semi-automatic rifles, more than 100 anti-tank launchers and thousands of land mines and hand grenades.

Major-General Lange acknowledges that he expects NATO will collect fewer weapons from the gunmen than the Macedonian government wants.

"The President requested some clarification [about] the figures," he explained. " And we have been passing on that information, which is requested. But there [is] no formal agreement on those."

General Lange adds that he nevertheless believes Operation Essential Harvest is the best way to avoid all out war in the troubled Balkan nation.

NATO's statement came as the ethnic Albanian guerillas released eight prisoners of war, as part of what some analysts described as a well-timed public relations effort to improve their image.

Earlier reporters saw some of the more than 20 Macedonian detainees, believed to be held by the gunmen, on charges ranging from spying to cooperation with the enemy. One of the prisoners said he expected to be released soon.

"They are saying it is just about over. And that [things] will be straightened [out]. There is no problem," he said.

However Macedonian officials have questioned the ethnic Albanian gunmen's sincerity, as fighting continued in the northeast of the country.

Tensions in Macedonia were heightened on Sunday when two Macedonians were killed in a hotel blast near the city of Tetovo. State television blamed the incident on Albanian guerillas.

Prime Minister Georgievski said there should be retaliation against what he called "legitimate terrorist targets".

NATO spokesman in Macedonia, Major Barry Johnson, says the tensions make it clear that the alliance will have to send more than the three and a 500,000 peacekeepers originally scheduled to be sent to the region.

"Several nations have increased what they believe is necessary for the protection of their forces… [including] logistics, the national support they deem necessary in order to ensure those troops are properly taken care off. So once again, we now expect that total to become between 4500 and 5000, which was within the original limits that were given to NATO," Major Johnson said.

However Slavic politicians and analysts predict that even with extra manpower it will be impossible for NATO to create an atmosphere of stability within the 30-days allocated to Operation Essential Harvest.

Western officials have not ruled out that NATO troops will stay longer as part of a wider military mission in Macedonia, to make sure the peace process continues in the former Yugoslav republic.