Nato agrees to send troops into Macedonia

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The Independent Online

Britain is to send troops into Macedonia as part of a 5,000-strong Nato peace-keeping force to disarm Albanian rebels if they can be persuaded to sign up to a peace deal in the next few days.

Britain is to send troops into Macedonia as part of a 5,000-strong Nato peace-keeping force to disarm Albanian rebels if they can be persuaded to sign up to a peace deal in the next few days.

The decision announced yesterday marks a significant increase in Western involvement in Macedonia and reflects the growing belief that the risks of intervening are outweighed by the danger of allowing the former Yugoslav republic to implode. But it will fuel fears of Nato being sucked into a long-term conflict, although the alliance insisted strict conditions would have to be met before troops were committed.

Nato's secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, said the deployment "will only happen when there is a durable ceasefire between all the parties in the [Macedonian government] coalition and an agreement by the armed extremists". An official added: "We are not going up into the mountains to chase Albanians who have decided not to give up their weapons."

The Ministry of Defence has laid down several preconditions, including a firm ceasefire and a commitment by the National Liberation Army rebels to disarm within a clear timeframe.

Defence officials in London said the initial part of the operation could take place as early as next week. Britain is expected to send up to 1,500 soldiers.

Nato is already offering advice to the government in Skopje and helping to police the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. But both the Albanian rebels and the Slav-dominated government in Skopje want more Nato involvement, although they have different ideas about its role.

Ljubco Georgievski, Macedonia's Prime Minister, is expected to present a plan for political change, including a series of concessions to the Albanian minority, in time for next Monday's gathering of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

Pressure for a deal will be underlined by Javier Solana, the EU's representative for foreign affairs, who is in Skopje today.

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