Officials say this advance guard will set up headquarters and assess the safety of the region. The larger force of 3,500 troops will only be sent to collect weapons surrendered by ethnic Albanian rebels if a cease-fire proves durable.
The fragile cease-fire imposed Sunday was already tested today when a Macedonian policeman was killed by suspected rebels at a checkpoint in the city of Tetovo. The commander of the rebel National Liberation Army, or NLA, said an ethnic Albanian civilian was also injured in the shooting.
The Macedonian army reported rebel shooting throughout the night in the city at the heart of recent fighting.
NATO ambassadors will meet in Brussels Friday to discuss whether conditions are safe enough to deploy the full NATO force. The mission, dubbed “Operation Essential Harvest,” is supposed to last only 30 days.
Political leaders representing the Balkan nation’s Macedonian majority and its ethnic Albanian minority signed a peace accord Tuesday that promises improved education for ethnic Albanians, greater use of the Albanian language and proportional representation in parliament, government administration and police forces.
In exchange, the ethnic Albanian rebels must end their six-month war against the Macedonian government and surrender their weapons to the NATO troops.
The NLA has said that its fight will be over when parliament approves the new rights for the 30 percent ethnic Albanian minority. The parliament has said that it will go ahead with the legal changes only after the rebels have handed in a third of their arms.
The legislature is tentatively scheduled to meet on August 31 to discuss the agreement.
The political chief of the ethnic Albanian guerrillas said today that the rebels are committed to the peace deal, but he wants NATO troops to remain in Macedonia for longer than 30 days to ensure that government forces do not retaliate.
Macedonian public opinion remains hostile to the accord and to NATO’s involvement, particularly in granting amnesty to the rebels.
A splinter faction, the Albanian National Army, has reportedly vowed that it will continue to fight despite the agreement. The organization has no ties to the NLA, but the Macedonian government is still taking seriously the recent statement that the ANA is “prepared for a long fight until that [Macedonian] land is liberated.”
The British officials insisted today that NATO troops will not get pulled into a another Balkan war.
“We are there for weapon collection, not to work a green line between the two sides,” Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram said.
The French Foreign Ministry have pledged to commit 530 troops to the NATO mission and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has said he is considering sending about 500 German soldiers.