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NATO: Implement Ceasefire Before Sending Troops To Macedonia - 2001-08-17

NATO's ruling council has put off action until at least next week on full deployment of a force to collect arms from ethnic Albanian gunmen in Macedonia.

Meeting in special session, the NATO envoys reviewed the situation and decided it is too soon to make a final decision on deployment.

NATO wants a stable cease-fire to be in place before committing the full 3,500 member force. Sporadic clashes between ethnic Albanian rebels and Macedonia government forces have been reported.

An advance unit of about 400 soldiers is already arriving in Macedonia. It will survey the situation and prepare a headquarters and communications facilities that would ultimately be used by the main force.

In addition, NATO commander General Joseph Ralston travels to Macedonia Monday to make his own review of the situation.

NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur says the alliance is sending a clear message. "We care, we're concerned and we're committed," Mr. Brodeur says. "And we're doing everything we can to be there as quickly as possible to do the job."

Ethnic Albanian rebels have waged a six-month insurgency in Macedonia. However, ethnic Albanian parties and the Macedonian government signed a political agreement early this week. The rebels were not involved in the talks but reached a separate agreement with NATO to surrender arms.

Diplomats say NATO wants to build on the political momentum but faces a tricky situation. Quick action may expose alliance forces to serious risks, while delays may allow the situation on the ground to worsen.

Once the full NATO force is approved it will be on a limited 30-day mission to collect weapons from the insurgents. Some Macedonians fear the guerrillas will bury most of their arms and recover them when NATO leaves.

The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of ethnic Albanians, who make up about a third of Macedonia's population. The government accuses them of wanting to join ethnic Albanian parts of Macedonia with neighboring Kosovo.