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Macedonia May Let NATO Troops Stay Past Deadline

A Macedonian government official Monday indicated his government, despite earlier opposition, may allow some NATO troops to remain in the country beyond a September 26 deadline for collecting the weapons of Albanian insurgents.

The possible change in Macedonia's official position comes only a day after top government leaders met in Skopje with NATO's chief commander, General Joseph Ralston. While NATO continues to say that its mission will end September 26, several member countries fear a premature withdrawal could create a security vacuum and lead to renewed fighting.

A government official who asked not to be named says Macedonia might agree to allow some NATO troops to remain in the country as part of a U.N. led force. A small U.N. force in Macedonia from 1992 to 1998 is credited with helping maintain stability. The peace agreement between Macedonia and ethnic-Albanian insurgents was signed last month.

Meanwhile, at the Macedonian army base at Krivalak, Hungarian engineers are destroying weapons turned in during the first phase of the voluntary handover of insurgent weapons. British Major Anna Kimber is a NATO spokeswoman. "The important thing to note here is that the weapons are being deactivated, which means basically they are put beyond use before being transported to Greece," she said.

A special Hungarian team uses power tools to cut through the weapons, most of which are older rifles and grenade launchers of Chinese, North Korean, and Soviet origin. Hungarian Joseph Speich is in charge of that operation. He says his soldiers are accustomed to this kind of mission. "We have done work by the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) treaty a few years ago," he said. "We destroyed more than 500 tanks in Hungary, T-55s, T-54s and other equipment, as well."

The weapons came to Krivalak by truck and helicopter. Altogether some 3,300 weapons are to be voluntarily surrendered by the ethnic-Albanian insurgents, who are then promised amnesty under the peace agreement.