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NLA Pledges to Disarm in Macedonia

The leader of ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia said Wednesday his fighters will lay down their arms, whether or not parliament approves a peace deal. The unexpected move puts pressure on Macedonian political leaders to move forward on ratifying expanded rights for ethnic Albanians.

The rebel National Liberation Army (NLA) says it will completely disarm over the next week, even if the Macedonian parliament does not uphold its end of a peace accord.

Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the NLA, said the move was intended to show goodwill in respecting an agreement with NATO to fully disband by September 26.

NATO officials in Macedonia welcomed the declaration. They had earlier said they expected the voluntary hand-over of the guerrillas' arsenal to be linked to the political process.

The shift in policy by the NLA also put pressure on Macedonian lawmakers to push forward with approval of the peace agreement. Mr. Ahmeti said, "We do not want to give the parliament a pretext to block the process."

That process stalled Wednesday, after the parliament adjourned without taking up the recommendations of a legislative committee to approve a package of constitutional amendments. A separate measure calling for a referendum on the changes is expected to come to a vote Thursday.

European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana warned that organizing a referendum would create a dangerous delay in approving the peace accord. He told the European Parliament Wednesday, "We would be confronted with a two-month political vacuum that would be extremely perilous."

Mr. Ahmeti, the leader of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian rebels, said he is convinced that NATO will protect ethnic Albanians in the event of any such vacuum. He said, "We have no written guarantee, but certainly from the moral side, NATO will stay here with a new mandate."

While the Macedonian government has formally asked NATO to remain in the country after the disarmament mission ends, it has ruled out granting a mandate for peacekeeping. Instead, the Macedonians are asking only for a small force of several hundred troops to help protect teams of unarmed international monitors.

An alliance spokesman in Skopje gave no indication when NATO would make a decision on the deployment, but said alliance political leaders are considering the request.

NATO will resume collecting weapons from the NLA Thursday. The guerrillas have already handed in more than two-thirds of the arms it has agreed to turn over to NATO.