First 400 British troops to fly out to Macedonia

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The Independent Online

Nato moved to seize the initiative in Macedonia yesterday, approving plans to dispatch 400 British soldiers to set up a headquarters in Skopje and pave the way for a bigger troop deployment as soon as next week.

The men, who will be drawn from the 16th Air Assault Brigade, will begin flying out today and should all be in place in the Macedonian capital by the end of the weekend.

However, at the meeting of Nato's ruling council in Brussels, the alliance's 19 ambassadors judged it too soon to authorise the full mission of 3,500 soldiers to help disarm ethnic Albanian rebels from the rebel National Liberation Army. A fragile ceasefire has been in place since Sunday night with some Nato ambassadors yet to be convinced that it is permanent enough to permit the bigger deployment.

Since the signing of a political deal between Macedonia's Slav and Albanian political parties on Monday, Western leaders have been struggling to achieve a consensus over whether they should send in soldiers quickly. The alliance is adamant its small contingent will be involved only in a 30-day weapons collection exercise and is wary of getting sucked into a broader peace-keeping role, particularly if the ceasefire breaks down.

However, several countries, including Britain, argued forcefully that by failing to deploy quickly Nato would undermine the fragile accord between the two sides.

Those pressing for an early mission were given a boost when the NLA agreed to hand over about 3,000 weapons under an agreement reached with Nato on Tuesday. Yesterday's compromise decision allows the alliance to be seen to be acting, while giving doubters more time to assess the durability of the ceasefire.

A Nato source said: "The situation is still evolving and, at the same time, the clock is ticking and we cannot afford to take too long to act. But some countries will want to be able to pass a judgement [on the ceasefire] which has only been in place for 72 hours."

The British contingent, led by Brigadier Barney White-Spunner, will set up the headquarters, establishing communications with the various parties and working out the logistics of the arms handover. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence a Nato decision to deploy the remaining 3,100 troops envisaged by Operation Essential Harvest will depend on the brigadier's report of the situation on the ground.

Nato expects a discussion of the main deployment to take place either tomorrow or on Monday. The alliance says the dispatch of the headquarters staff will allow Nato's full contingent to begin weapons collection as swiftly as possible when they get the go-ahead.

The complete deployment of troops, which would include 800 more British soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, plus troops from France, Italy, Greece, Germany the Czech Republic and the United States, would take about two weeks.

Alliance officials believe that, provided the ceasefire holds up reasonably well, the 30-day operation could be under way by early September. "Most of the pieces of this puzzle are falling into place rather quickly," said one official. Macedonia's Foreign Minister, Ilinka Mitreva, said her country had approved Nato's deployment, clearing another important hurdle.

However, some diplomats are sceptical that the NLA's disarmament offer will remove the bulk of the weapons from the hands of ethnic Albanian rebels. There are also worries that splinter groups will continue fighting even if the ceasefire holds.