First British troops leave for Macedonia despite safety fears

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The Independent Online

Forty-one British troops departed for Macedonia last night as part of a Nato force to oversee the disarmament of Albanian rebels under a Western-brokered peace process.

But even before they arrived, the fighting continued in Macedonia and Nato postponed a decision on whether it was safe to send the full British-led force of 3,500.

The 41 mainly logistics staff from the 16th Air Assault Brigade who departed for Macedonia yesterday from Suffolk's Wattisham airbase are part of an advance party to set up a headquarters in Skopje and determine whether it is safe to deploy the full force.

A further 360 troops from the brigade are due to depart for Macedonia today. Nato has stressed the task force will only supervise the collection of weapons voluntarily surrendered by the rebels, under an agreement with Nato last week, and will not forcibly disarm anyone or act as peacekeepers.

Nato yesterday said the 30-day limit it has imposed on the mission will not begin until the full force is deloyed. The alliance still insists the full force will not be deployed if a ceasefire does not hold. Yesterday there were disturbing signs that it was not holding. A 70-year-old man was reported to have been killed in fighting, and the rebels accused Macedonian air force helicopters of firing rockets near the village of Radusa on the Kosovo border. The Macedonian government denied the helicopters had fired, claiming they were only making reconaissance flights.

On Thursday a Macedonian policeman was killed by sniper fire in the main Albanian city of Tetovo, much of which is under rebel control.

British troops will dominate the full task force, if it is deployed. A further 680 troops from the 2nd battalion, Parachute regiment and engineers are on stand by to fly to Macedonia next week.

Nato ambassadors meeting in Brussels delayed making a decision on whether to deploy the full force. "The meeting did not make any decision... because the delegations are still expecting to receive more information to assess the ceasefire on the ground," a Nato official said.

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