Nato chief pushes peace in uneasy Macedonia

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Nato's most senior official urged Macedonian officials yesterday to support a Western-brokered peace plan and offer a "tiny ray of sunshine" amid the devastation of terror attacks in Washington and New York.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen underlined his support for the plan, which envisages the surrender of ethnic Albanian rebel weapons in exchange for the passage of new legislation granting the ethnic Albanian minority more rights.

After arriving in Skopje, Lord Robertson said: "This has been a black week for the world. The events in New York and Washington cast a shadow not just across America but across the Balkans as well.

"And yet the people of this country are embarking on a historic venture here in bringing peace and stability. So there could be a tiny ray of sunshine from Macedonia that might break the blackness of this terrible week."

More than 2,200 weapons have already been collected by the alliance. The 1,271 weapons handed in during the second phase of the operation were disabled yesterday at the Krivolak military base, about 44 miles south-east of Skopje. They are to be transported to Greece for final destruction.

Weapons displayed included five SA7 anti-aircraft shoulder-launched missiles and two Sagger 3 anti-tank wire-guided missiles, as well as assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and two .50-calibre sniper rifles. Commending the collection operation, Lord Robertson said that the plan aimed for "100 percent disarmament.

"It's never been achieved before anywhere else in Europe and I think Macedonia stands ready to make its own bit of history," he said.

Nato is on a limited 30-day mission in Macedonia and is expected to complete weapons collection by 26 September.

President Boris Trajkovski, after a separate meeting with Mircea Geoana, the chairman of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said the highest priority of the peace process was now the return of refugees.

Despite the peace agreement, tension continues. Macedonian radio reported an exchange of fire overnight between rebels and security forces around the villages of Ratae and Zilce, near the northwestern city of Tetovo.

There were no reports of injuries. Western officials have repeatedly expressed concern over the appearance of an alleged Macedonian paramilitary group known as the Lions.

Nato fears that the paramilitaries could destabilise security and make the ethnic Albanian rebels reluctant to hand over more weapons. The alliance has asked the government to clarify whether the Lions are under its control.

The final peace agreement, which includes constitutional changes, would only be passed after Nato has collected all 3,300 weapons the rebels have agreed to surrender. (AP)