NATO's top military official, U.S. General Joseph Ralston, has met with military experts and political leaders in Macedonia. The general will report his findings to the NATO political council ahead of a final decision on a deployment to the Balkan country.

General Ralston flew to Skopje for a quick series of meetings with a team of NATO liaison officers and Macedonian leaders.

NATO officials say his visit is part of an alliance assessment of security conditions in Macedonia. They say it is an important factor in the decision to send 3,500 troops to the country.

The long-planned mission would collect weapons from ethnic-Albanian rebels, known as the National Liberation Army, within a strictly defined 30-day timetable.

A durable cease-fire has been set down as a primary condition by NATO to prevent the British-led force from being drawn into the conflict, if it is deployed.

One Western official said he could not imagine that NATO would back away from approving the mission, but he said he expected the decision-making process would still take several more days.

If the 19-member NATO council endorses the weapons collection mission, it would be the Alliance's third deployment in six years to the war-wracked former Yugoslavia.

Unlike NATO peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, the deployment to Macedonia is intended to facilitate the disarmament of ethnic-Albanian rebels. The disarmament is part of a peace accord signed last week by Macedonian and Albanian political leaders.

The cease-fire broke down in northeast Macedonia overnight Sunday, with some shelling and sustained artillery fire heard coming from villages near the city of Tetovo.

Both sides accused the other of opening fire on civilian areas there, where government forces in an ethnic-Macedonian village are stationed just two kilometers from rebel positions in a largely ethnic-Albanian village.

Macedonian newspapers are full of doubtful commentary about the NATO mission. Two of the leading dailies carry reports suspecting that only a fraction of the NLA's estimated firepower will be turned over to NATO.