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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 03:09 GMT 04:09 UK
UK troops return from Macedonia
A group of soldiers from the 16th Air Assault Brigade, leave the back of an RAF Hercules transport plane at RAF Lyneham
The troops had led the Nato operation
British troops have started returning from a "successful" Nato mission to collect weapons from Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

About 2,000 UK troops had been leading the 4,500-strong force overseeing the collection operation, which ended on Thursday.

On Thursday evening 29 soldiers arrived at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire from the Macedonian capital Skopje on board an RAF Hercules, with the remaining troops due back in the next couple of days.

Nato said the operation, codenamed Essential Harvest, was a complete success.

Lt Col Mark Armstrong, Commanding Officer of 7 battalion Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers
Lt Col Mark Armstrong: "Successful job"

A spokesman said about 3,875 weapons were collected - the Nato target had been 3,300.

On his return, Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Armstrong of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, said: "We went out to collect weapons and that's what we've done. Relations on both sides of the community went very well and I think we've done a successful job.

"Large amounts of negotiations at the start and detailed planning that took place resulted in the end in a very successful conclusion."

He added: "Our priority now is to get the whole brigade back, get our leave in and then the brigade will be ready for whatever subsequent operations are put before us by the end of October."

The Ministry of Defence has said troops serving in Macedonia would not be immediately deployed to the Gulf region, where more than 20,000 British soldiers are currently involved in war game exercises.

Some of these could soon find themselves operating in Afghanistan as part of the war on terrorism, defence sources have confirmed.

Soldier killed

The Macedonian operation was part of a Western-backed peace plan which aims to stave off the threat of a full-scale war in Macedonia.

It was marred by the death of Sapper Ian Collins, 22, from Sheffield, who was killed when youths hurled a lump of concrete at his Land Rover on the outskirts of Skopje.

Some Nato troops are to remain in Macedonia to protect international observers monitoring the next phase of the peace plan.

Nato Secretary-General George Robertson said the force would be smaller than the current one and would be led by Germany.

It is not clear what the extent of its mandate and the duration of its deployment might be.

As part of the peace deal, the Macedonian parliament is now supposed to approve changes to the constitution to give broader rights to the country's minority ethnic Albanian community.

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See also:

27 Sep 01 | Europe
UN backs new Macedonia mission
25 Sep 01 | Europe
Nato hails Macedonia operation
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