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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 07:47 GMT 08:47 UK
Straw flies to Macedonia
British soldier with a queue of rebels handing in weapons
British troops are leading the arms-collection exercise
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is flying to Macedonia to visit British troops leading a 4,500-strong Nato operation to collect arms from rebels.

Mr Straw will also hold talks designed to boost the peace process between the government of the Balkan country and the ethnic Albanian rebels.

He is expected to add to international pressure on Macedonian leaders to keep their side of the deal.

There has been mounting concern about UK troops in the Balkan country, following the death of one soldier and fears the mission could drag on.

UK foreign secretary Jack Straw
Mr Straw will press politicians to keep their side of the bargain
On Thursday Mr Straw told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was possible the mission would be extended.

He said: "Nothing in the Balkans is inevitable.

"It could change, but it took a lot of discussion amongst the partners in Nato to agree this 30 days.

"My best bet is that the decision will stand and at 30 days this operation will come to an end, but I can't be certain."

Sapper Ian Collins, 22, from Sheffield, was killed on Monday in an attack by Macedonian youths who threw a lump of concrete at his Land Rover.

American medics later described how they were threatened by about 30 youths as they tried to treat the soldier.

Mr Straw is expected to remind the authorities that Sapper Collins' killers must be brought to justice.

He will also meet Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski and prime minister Lubjco Georgievski, and tell them the weapons collection process is going to plan.

It is expected he will ask them whether the Macedonian Government is keeping its part of the deal with the National Liberation Army (NLA) rebels.

Sapper Ian Collins, who was killed when concrete was thrown at his Land Rover
Sapper Collins: The first Nato victim of the operation

The rebels, who began their armed insurgency in February, are surrendering the weapons as part of a peace plan which includes greater rights for Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority.

The government has promised reforms such as greater self-government, more ethnic Albanians in the police and the wider use of the Albanian language.

But British diplomatic sources say the first stage of the planned reforms may not even be debated in the Macedonian parliament until 4 September, rather than 31 August as expected.

'Museum Harvest'

Nato sources have said its operation is going well, and that the NLA has given up weapons "in the high hundreds" towards the target of about 3,500 - from an arsenal estimated anywhere between 8,000 and 80,000.

But Macedonian ministers have said the operation should be renamed "Museum Harvest", as the only weapons being handed in were ancient.

Mr Straw dismissed such criticism: "If, say, in Northern Ireland you had this number of weapons being handed over by terrorist organisations, people wouldn't regard it as token."

But BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan said Mr Straw would "have his work cut out" in reassuring the majority Slav population that the mission is being successful.

"The Macedonian Slavs are still really unhappy with the whole thing," he said.

Nato Secretary General George Robertson looks at weapons handed in
Nato Secretary-General George Robertson has been on a similar diplomatic sortie

"They are incredibly hostile to Nato still - it's very difficult to find anyone who had a good word to say for Nato in the peace process.

"They call the arms collection operation a PR exercise, they call it theatre, they say the Albanians have been handing over museum pieces."

But Mr Straw said he was not intimidated by the "feverish atmosphere" in Macedonia.

"It has to be remembered that the Nato troops in Operation Essential Harvest are only there as a result of an invitation from the government of Macedonia," he said.

"They're not an army of occupation. They're people there to assist in a peace process which at its heart is a political process."

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The BBC's Lyse Doucet
"They dont want to say they are leaving come-what-may"

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