Weapons discord shakes Macedonia peace

An explosion ripped through a motel in northeastern Macedonia early yesterday, killing two employees and complicating NATO's efforts to start its mission to collect weapons from ethnic-Albanian rebels.

The slayings added pressure on the alliance on the eve of today's planned start of Operation Essential Harvest. NATO hopes to collect about a third of the rebels' weapons by the end of next week, in time for a key parliamentary meeting called for in the August 13 peace plan.

The deal that ended six months of fighting between guerrillas and government forces envisions a step-by-step process, in which rebels would voluntarily hand over weapons to NATO in exchange for political reforms in Macedonia.

The alliance announced yesterday it would move ahead with plans to collect the weapons, despite its failure so far to reach an agreement with the Macedonian government on how many arms to expect.

Major General Gunnar Lange, commander of the disarmament task force, told a news conference yesterday that NATO would collect 3,300 weapons from the rebels. Macedonia's leaders, who met in a special session yesterday, claim the insurgents have 85,000 weapons. The rebels have put the number closer to 2,000.

Western observers described the higher government figure as an attempt by hard-liners to obstruct the peace deal.

NATO had presented Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski with a figure on Friday, and the continuation of discussions yesterday fueled speculation on the extent of the rebels' arsenal. The alliance said the government has simply asked for clarification of the figures NATO has suggested.

Both Macedonian security forces and the rebels have agreed to pull back from sensitive areas in order for NATO troops to set up one-day weapons collection points as part of the peace plan, alliance officials said. By midday yesterday, however, no movement was evident.

The withdrawals "are designed to ensure there is no tension, or the least possible tension, prior to the weapons collection," said Col. Paul Edwards, chief of operations for the mission.

A senior NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the rebel plan for turning in weapons as a "credible" effort toward disarmament.

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