Skopje, 17 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first of some 400 British troops will arrive in Macedonia later today to prepare for the possible deployment of a 3,500-strong NATO force. An advance team of about 40 British soldiers will land in Skopje, with another 350 due over the weekend.
The North Atlantic Council, NATO's ruling body, meets in Brussels today to decide whether to send the 3,500-strong force to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels.
Reports say it is unclear if the 19 NATO nations will be ready to make a decision today.
The troops arriving this weekend will study the military situation on the ground and complete plans for the full NATO deployment.
NATO says it will not deploy unless there is a durable cease-fire.
Yesterday, a Macedonian policeman was shot dead by ethnic Albanian rebels in the first serious violation of the peace agreement signed on 13 August.
NATO officials in Skopje said the policeman was killed during an attack on a police post near Tetovo.
The U.S. State Department urged all sides to respect a cease-fire and reported relative calm in Macedonia. Spokesman Philip Reeker said a lasting cease-fire is a prerequisite for sending in allied troops. Reeker said:
"We're going to focus very much on continuing to support Macedonia and continuing to support President (Boris) Trajkovski's efforts as they move forward through what will continue to be a difficult time. These are tough issues and there's a lot of work that remains to be done, and that's what we're going to focus on."
The U.S. Defense Department says the American military will provide medical support, transport helicopters, and pilotless reconnaissance aircraft if NATO decides to send troops to Macedonia to collect arms from ethnic Albanian rebels.
Spokesman Craig Quigley said yesterday the U.S. does not plan to be involved directly at the several locations where weapons are to be collected.