NATO's ruling council has authorized the deployment of a small advance force to Macedonia. The troops are to prepare the way for a larger NATO force that will collect weapons held by ethnic-Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

NATO officials say about 400 troops could be in Macedonia by the weekend. The troops are to set up headquarters and communications facilities for a NATO force of 3,500 soldiers.

The decision to send the advance team was reached by NATO ambassadors meeting in Brussels.

Alliance spokesman Yves Brodeur said NATO is pleased with developments in Macedonia since the signing of a peace accord Monday by Macedonian and ethnic-Albanian political leaders.

"NATO's timing, I would say, is rather critical. What we will be doing will actually contribute to reinforce the trust between the people in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia," he said.

But NATO did not make a decision on deployment of the full 3,500 man force that is to actually collect weapons held by the rebels.

Spokesman Brodeur says NATO wants to see more progress on a sustainable cease-fire before going ahead with full deployment. Both the Macedonian government and the rebels have accused each other of repeated violations of a truce declared Sunday.

Diplomatic sources say the gradual approach will allow the alliance to encourage both sides to implement the political accord. Rebel disarmament is meant to coincide with a package of political reforms.

Once the full NATO force is approved it will be on a limited 30 day mission to collect the rebel weapons. 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 a third of Macedonia's population. The government accuses them of wanting to join ethnic-Albanian parts of Macedonia with neighboring Kosovo.