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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
British troops land in Macedonia
Religious service at Colchester Barracks before troops set off for Macedonia
Up to 700 paratroopers are to join the Nato force
The first contingent of British troops has arrived in the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

Britain is sending 400 more soldiers than originally planned to take part in the Nato mission to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels as part of a ceasefire agreement.

The members of the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment will join the 400-strong advance party of the British-led Operation Essential Harvest which has been preparing the way for the larger force since last weekend.

They will form part of the 1,900 troops due to stay in Macedonia for just 30 days.

Nato's plan
UK and other forces move in swiftly
UK, French, Greeks and Italians lead battalions
Total force around 3,500
UK's Brigadier Barney White-Spunner at helm
Arms collection sites set up
Rebels leave arms, Nato collects
Nato leaves in 30 days
At one stage Britain might have had to provide more than 2,000 troops out of a total of 3,500, but Canada stepped in to contribute personnel.

The first of eight British military aircraft, carrying 90 troops, touched down 20 minutes ahead of schedule at 0620BST on Thursday.

A further 200 British troops flew out from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire shortly after 1200BST.

And four aircraft, each carrying Army vehicles and 20 soldiers, had taken off from RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire by 1300BST.

Captain Peter Flynn, adjutant to 2 Para, said morale among the troops was "sky high".

"The agreement has been signed and it's the green light for the boys to go, and we're off," he said.

'Plenty of support'

Earlier, Sergeant-Major Adrian Brooks, of 16 Close Support Medical Regiment, told BBC News his unit was "very confident".

"The majority of the unit has been to the Balkans before.

"And anyone that hasn't, has plenty of support from the other guys and girls."

"The British Army is quite experienced in the Balkans now and it feels a bit like Groundhog Day - we have been here and done it before.

"We have done quite a bit of training for this and we foresee no problems at all."

But chef Natalie Murphy, 18, from Wellington, Cheshire, said: "This will be my first tour and we've just got to get on with the jobs we're told to do.

"I don't know what to expect and I don't know when I'll be home."

It's exciting to be going out there on tour - but it's more difficult leaving home now I'm married

Corporal Shane Hodgson
Corporal Shane Hodgson, 28, of the Royal Medical Corps, from Colchester, Essex, added: "I've been to Macedonia before as a medic and I know more or less what to expect from the country.

"There'll be extreme weather conditions and I expect to be dealing with some heat-related problems.

"It's exciting to be going out there on tour - but it's more difficult leaving home now I'm married."

International force

The soldiers of 2 Para, who have experience of operations in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, will form the backbone of the international force which is expected to be in place within two weeks.

It is the third time member states have approved intervention in the Balkans in six years.

Ambassadors unanimously backed the intervention, which was approved by the organisation's military committee on Wednesday.

The decision came after the ceasefire in Macedonia was judged sufficiently stable.

Operation deadline

Defence officials have set a strict 30-day deadline on the operation.

Under Nato's plan the rebels will collect their own weapons and deposit them at pre-arranged collection sites.

Nato troops will then move in, seal the area, pick up the guns for destruction in a third country and leave.

The BBC's Duncan Kennedy and Brian Hanrahan
report from RAF Brize Norton and Skopje, Macedonia
General Lewis MacKenzie, former head of UN forces
"I'm uneasy with the decision that's been made"
General Wesley Clark, ex Nato commander in Kosovo
"There's still violence in the area"

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See also:

23 Aug 01 | UK
Life as a paratrooper
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