- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia — NATO moved ahead yesterday with plans to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels, but a possible stumbling block — the number of weapons the rebels will turn in — remained.
A firm number is crucial because the peace deal that allowed NATO into the country calls for a step-by-step process in which rebels voluntarily hand their weapon caches over to NATO troops in exchange for political reforms. The arms collection is supposed to start early this week, but a figure must be accepted before NATO launches the operation.
NATO officials announced Friday that they had agreed with the rebels on the number of weapons to be collected by the troops. Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the agreement called for the rebels to surrender about 3,500 weapons.
Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said yesterday, however, that weapons figures as low as 3,500 could hinder the peace process.
"We used to seize that quantity in a single raid," he said. "I think it is laughable to speak about 3,500 pieces six months after the outbreak of crisis. I think that if that figure stays, we will not achieve anything."
He suggested that the guerrillas hold up to 70,000 weapons, 20 times the number they have reportedly offered to turn over.
NATO had presented President Boris Trajkovski with a figure on Friday, and the continuation of discussions yesterday fueled speculation on the extent of the rebel arsenal. The alliance downplayed the dispute, insisting the government has simply asked for clarification of figures NATO has suggested.
"We have great confidence that this process is going to move forward and that our numbers will be accepted as being realistic," said Maj. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for NATO forces in Macedonia. "We have every confidence that…the collection sites will be able to begin on Monday as planned."
Reports late yesterday indicated NATO and Skopje were close to a deal, but no breakthrough was announced.
Fighting broke out along Macedonia's border with Kosovo in February, after ethnic Albanians launched an insurgency and claimed they were fighting for greater rights. The government says ethnic Albanians, who make up about a third of the country's population of 2 million, really want a state of their own.
After an Aug. 13 peace deal, NATO's ruling council authorized a total of about 4,700 troops to help with disarmament of the rebels. That includes about 3,500 actively involved in the collection of arms and others in administrative and logistic roles, the alliance said.
NATO officials said Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels have agreed to pull back from sensitive areas ahead of the collection. Macedonian security forces said they would move to a distance of 3-1/2 miles from sites where troops will collect the arms, NATO said.
NATO hopes to collect about a third of the arms by the end of next week.
Also yesterday, World Bank officials pledged to assist the troubled Balkan country, offering a fresh influx of cash, provided a peace deal remains in place.


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