Macedonia peace plan on track as rebels give up guns

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The Independent Online

Nato resumed collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels yesterday in the final phase of its mission, despite foot-dragging by lawmakers who seem reluctant to implement a Western-backed peace plan.

Major Barry Johnson, a Nato spokesman, said troops were collecting weapons from the militants at a site opened yesterday.

Alliance officials had said earlier that they did not expect the rebels to hand in any arms, suggesting they were holding back over Macedonian lawmakers' delays in proceeding with constitutional reforms.

But, by early afternoon, weapons were being handed in, Major Johnson said.

Under the peace plan, parliament is to approve constitutional amendments to grant the country's ethnic Albanian minority greater rights in exchange for the rebels handing in 3,300 weapons to Nato troops and disbanding.

Troops from the alliance have already collected more than 2,200 of the promised weapons.

Parliament was expected to discuss the amendments before the last of the weapons were collected. After hours of uncertainty over whether it would convene, the session finally began on Wednesday.

The discussion was also delayed by a proposal by the small New Democracy Party to put the constitutional amendments to a referendum – which could disrupt the peace effort by months since sentiment is strong among the Macedonian majority against giving ethnic Albanians greater rights.

The arms-collecting mission is scheduled to end next weekbut a Macedonian government request for a small Nato force to protect international monitors beyond that date is being discussed in Brussels.

The UN refugee agency has also called for a larger force to help thousands of displaced people go home.

Security concerns have come to the forefront after a tense stand-off with people in the Macedonian villages of Zilce and Ratae, who refused to allow police units to be replaced by the army – although, by yesterday, the army had moved in to take their place.

In another development, an explosion outside Skopje yesterday damaged an ethnic Albanian-owned gas station sited near a police checkpoint, police said. No injuries have been reported. (AP)