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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Nato sets weapons target
British troops check map
Nato is still selecting weapons collection sites
Nato has confirmed that it has a target number of weapons which it aims to collect from ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

The number is not being made public - but Nato say it is non-negotiable.

Ethnic Albanian rebels
Rebel weapons include this captured tank
The confirmation follows wide discrepancies between estimates by the government and the guerrillas on the size of the rebel arsenal.

The Macedonian Government says the rebels hold tens of thousands of guns and other armaments. The rebels are expected to hand over about 2,000 weapons.

The BBC diplomatic correspondent says that now Nato looks more justified in asserting that the weapons collection can be completed within 30 days, as planned.

Signals equipment set up by British forces
Signalling work is already well under way
Meanwhile, more Nato troops have been moving into the country to make up the multi-national Operation Essential Harvest task force.

It will take up to 14 days for the full force to be deployed, but weapons collection could begin as early as Monday.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the operation could be completed in as few as 10 days.

But Russia's President Vladimir Putin has cast doubt on the mission's chances of success. He will meet his Macedonian counterpart Boris Trajkovski on Friday to discuss the crisis. Both men are in Ukraine for Independence Day celebrations.

Nato force
UK leading - 1,900
France - 530
Italy - around 500
Germany - 500
Greece - 350
Netherlands - 250
Canada - 200
Spain, Turkey, Hungary, Norway, Czech Republic, Belgium - under 200 each
US - providing transport
Commander: UK's Brigadier Barney White-Spunner
A brittle ceasefire between rebels and government forces is generally holding, although doubts persist over what impact the mission can have, given the limited nature of Nato's weapons collection role.

The official strength of the force is put at 3,500 - but the total number of troops offered by individual Nato member governments exceeds that figure.

Nato soldiers will simply receive weapons that are handed over voluntarily - they have no mandate to seize any guns.

They will be divided between four areas - one British, one French, one Italian and one Greek, with contingents from other countries being assigned to one of the four.

None of the battle group locations is in rebel-held areas.

Czech serviceman
Soldiers of about a dozen nationalities are flying in
The BBC's Paul Adams, reporting from Skopje, says much of the operation is intended to be symbolic.

Nato believes, perhaps optimistically he says, that even a limited handover of weapons by the rebels is a statement of their intent to settle differences peacefully.

Senior Nato political officials are, however, still warning that the alliance's third Balkans mission is fraught with risk.

"We expect many, many problems. You can expect to see in the future further acts of violence," said on Nato spokesman Daniel Speckhard.

Supply routes

The Macedonian Government has welcomed Nato's arrival and pledged to co-operate with the incoming troops.

Our correspondent in Macedonia says many villagers who have been cut off by the fighting are pleased that the international presence has opened routes for food and other vital supplies to get through.

The rebels have been fighting for improved rights for Macedonia's Albanian minority.

A Western-brokered peace accord - which laid the groundwork for the handover of weapons - offers improved language rights and greater representation in the police force.

It also changes the country's constitution to remove references to ethnic background.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Brian Hanrahan
reports from Skopje on the days developments and interviews Albanian Prof. Qatip Arifi
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen in Neprosteno, Macedonia
"Macedonia is learning about ethic cleansing"
Nato Assistant Secretary-General Daniel Speckhard
"We're collecting the weapons that are being voluntarily handed over"

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See also:

24 Aug 01 | Europe
Putin warns on Macedonia
23 Aug 01 | Europe
Nato brings hope to Macedonia
22 Aug 01 | Europe
Is Nato's mission impossible?
17 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia mission 'too short'
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