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NATO Meets First Weapons Collection Target in Macedonia - 2001-08-30

NATO says it has met its first target of collecting one-third of the weapons held by ethnic-Albanian insurgents in Macedonia. The country's parliament is expected to begin debating ratification of a peace plan Friday.

NATO officials say they have collected more than 1,400 weapons from ethnic-Albanian guerrillas. Officials say that number puts "Operation Essential Harvest" ahead of schedule in its 30 day mission in Macedonia.

No details were released about what types of weapons were handed over Wednesday. Reporters were barred from observing the arms collection site. But a NATO spokesman said the haul was enough to put the mission over the one-third mark, opening the way toward progress on ratifying a peace accord.

Parliament leaders set the one-third target as a precondition to opening debate on more than a dozen constitutional amendments designed to grant more rights to minority ethnic Albanians.

Final passage of the political deal is still uncertain. It needs 81 votes in Macedonia's 120 seat legislature.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, in an article in Thursday's Financial Times newspaper, says that the alliance cannot do more to help Macedonia after its 30-day disarmament mission ends. An expanded NATO role was likely to, in his words, "encourage divisions along ethnic lines."

However, some observers have suggested that an international presence of some kind will be needed to maintain stability in Macedonia.

A Western official in Skopje said that, while NATO itself was not talking about taking on the mission, other international organizations could build confidence between the two sides. He suggested that what he called a "verification mission" could be created to monitor the police and army when government security forces re-enter rebel-held areas.

Meanwhile, a series of unsolved bomb attacks continues to rock the country.

Late Wednesday, a bomb destroyed an Albanian-owned restaurant in Skopje. It was the fourth bombing in four nights in the city. The blast was followed early Thursday by a powerful bomb explosion in the western city of Tetovo. The bomb injured two people and wrecked a hotel complex owned by an Albanian political leader.