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NATO's Head Applauds Disarmament Mission in Macedonia - 2001-09-25

NATO's Operation Essential Harvest is being declared a resounding success after exceeding its goal of collecting 3,300 weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels.

One day before the disarmament mission was set to expire, alliance Secretary-General George Robertson visited Macedonia to inspect the operation's progress.

While he said the final tally of weapons collected was still not complete, it would be well over the initial figure expected for the 30-day mission. All of the arms collected by NATO are being taken to a military base in the south of the country and destroyed.

Speaking at an army base used by German troops participating in the operation, Mr. Robertson said the mission overcame what he called "skepticism, criticism and a lot of doubt."

Task Force Harvest's nearly 5,000 troops are now expected to be replaced by a smaller international force of about 600 soldiers under German command. They will remain in Macedonia to guard teams of unarmed international observers who will oversee the return of government security forces to rebel-held areas.

Secretary-General Robertson warned against complacency after the end of the disarmament mission, saying it is not yet the end of the road to peace. While the rebels have now met all their obligations to NATO, Macedonian lawmakers have not yet given final approval to a peace agreement signed last month.

Mr. Robertson called on legislators to put aside narrow political interests and follow through on their promises saying, "It's up to the parliament of this country to turn the people's hopes into political reality."

Parliament is expected to debate the details of a package of constitutional amendments granting greater rights to ethnic Albanians over the next 10 days.

Hard-liners opposed to the agreement are vowing to water down some of the language in the agreement, despite warnings from ethnic Albanian leaders that this could re-ignite the conflict. In addition, a move to put the peace accord to a referendum still threatens to derail the process after parliament again postponed a vote on the measure Tuesday.

Meanwhile the Macedonian army withdrew heavy artillery from front-line positions near Tetovo on Tuesday, according to its agreement with NATO. Macedonian civilians in the area had been blocking the withdrawal for weeks, saying they feared for their safety without the military presence.