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NATO Prepares to Collect More Weapons

September 20, 2001

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SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ Despite foot-dragging by parliament in implementing Macedonia’s Western-backed peace plan, NATO troops prepared to move ahead Thursday with the last phase of their mission to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels.

Under the plan, the government agreed to have parliament work toward approving constitutional amendments granting the country’s ethnic Albanian minority greater rights in exchange for a commitment by the rebels to hand over 3,300 weapons to NATO troops.

The alliance already has collected more than 2,200 weapons. Parliament was expected to discuss the amendments before the last third was collected, but it did not convene Wednesday after failing to reach a quorum.

The discussion also has been delayed by another potentially disruptive issue: a proposal to put the constitutional amendments to a referendum. Legislators were to resume debate Thursday on the proposal by the small New Democracy party.

A referendum could disrupt the peace efforts because sentiment is strong among majority Macedonians against giving ethnic Albanians greater rights.

Despite the delay, NATO was to open a weapons collection site on Thursday, and the rebels appeared ready to fulfill their part of the bargain, NATO spokesman Maj. Barry Johnson said.

The alliance’s arms-collecting mission ends Sept. 26. A Macedonian government request for a small NATO force to protect international monitors beyond that date was being discussed at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, NATO spokesman Mark Laity said.

The U.N. refugee agency urged the creation of a larger force capable of assisting in the return of tens of thousands of displaced people to tense areas. Representative Eric Morris called for a ``credible security presence that can ... address the legitimate security concerns of both communities.″

Security concerns have come to the forefront in recent days in the Macedonian villages of Zilce and Ratae, northeast of the city of Tetovo. A tense standoff developed over the past few days when villagers refused to allow certain police units to be replaced by the army.

Police spokesman Vasko Sutarov said all police units in Zilce and in nearby Ratae had been replaced by the army by Thursday morning.

The Macedonian government took the decision to replace units following an exchange of fire on Sunday night between police and ethnic Albanians in the neighboring village of Semsevo.

NATO said its liaison teams determined the firefight _ which included the use of heavy weapons _ had been initiated by the police units in Zilce.

In another development, an explosion seriously damaged an ethnic Albanian-owned gas station near a police checkpoint outside Skopje early Thursday, police said. No injuries were reported, and it was not immediately clear what caused the blast.

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