Ambassadors from NATO’s 19 member nations authorized the move yesterday. Full deployment is expected within two weeks.
Britain, which will lead the mission called Operation Essential Harvest, announced that 700 British paratroopers will leave for Macedonia later today.
“There are risks involved,” said NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. “But members of the alliance have nevertheless agreed to send their troops because they know that the risks of not sending them are far greater.”
As part of a peace accord signed last week, ethnic Albanian rebels have agreed to turn over their weapons in exchange for constitutional reforms and greater rights for their 30 percent ethnic minority population.
Macedonia’s Interior Ministry said the rebels, who began the insurgency in February, hold about 85,000 weapons, ten times more than previously believed. The rebels claim to have only 2,000 weapons.
The weapons will be collected at several sites in the ex-Yugoslav republic and then taken to Greece and destroyed.
NATO has not yet determined how many weapons will be collected. Officials said the mission’s purpose is not to seize all rebel weapons, but to help rebuild inter-ethnic trust.
An advance guard of 400 mostly British troops arrived in Macedonia over the weekend to lay the groundwork for a full deployment. Hundreds more British, Greek and French troops are expected to arrive over the next two days.
Once the full force, consisting of about 1,800 British troops and 1,700 soldiers from ten other European nations and the United States, has arrived in Macedonia, the clock for the 30-day mission will begin ticking.
Several hundred U.S. troops will focus on limited behind-the-scenes logistical duties, such as monitoring unmanned reconnaissance flights.
There has been some skepticism, particularly from the ethnic Albanians, that the 30-day time frame is too short to ensure the success of the fragile peace deal, but Robertson has said NATO will not extend the mission, and that there is no need to do so.
Diplomats insist Operation Essential Harvest is not a peacekeeping mission, and the troops are not there to mediate between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.
Both Macedonian and ethnic Albanian leaders have said they welcome NATO’s decision to deploy the full force.