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Macedonia: First NATO Troops Arrive To Collect Weapons

Skopje, 23 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first contingent of 3,500 NATO troops arrived in Macedonia yesterday on a mission to collect weapons voluntarily surrendered by ethnic Albanian rebels. Some 200 French troops arrived in Skopje hours after NATO's ruling body, the North Atlantic Council, decided to approve the force's full deployment.

A contingent of British troops is expected to arrive today, followed by dozens of military flights over the coming 10 days. The full force is expected to be deployed in 10 days to two weeks.

NATO has given itself 30 days to complete the disarmament mission.

The force's commander, Danish General Gunnar Lange, said yesterday that preparations for receiving the weapons will begin next week.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson declined to give an exact date when the collection of the weapons will begin or where the first weapons will be collected.

The NATO mission is part of a peace plan meant to end six months of fighting between the rebels and government troops.

Germany's cabinet meets today in Berlin to discuss sending up to 500 German soldiers to take part in NATO's mission in Macedonia.

Several cabinet ministers, including members of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's ruling coalition, are opposed to sending the troops.

After today's meeting, Schroeder is expected to ask the speaker of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse, to convene a special session of the parliament to vote on sending the troops. The vote is expected to take place around the middle of next week.

Parliament must approve any deployment of German troops abroad.

Schroeder's parliamentary leader said on 21 August that he is confident that parliament will give the go-ahead for the German troops to serve in the NATO mission.