London The first troops of the latest NATO mission destined for the Balkans arrived Friday in the Macedonian capital, but NATO deferred a decision on whether to deploy the bulk of the force because of continued cease-fire violations.
Instead, NATO ambassadors meeting in Brussels decided to dispatch Gen. Joseph Ralston, the U.S. general and supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe, to Macedonia on Monday to assess whether it will be safe to send the rest of the planned 3,500-strong mission.
The new NATO force was approved last week after Macedonian officials and ethnic Albanian guerrillas signed a peace treaty that is supposed to end a 6-month-old conflict. But NATO has insisted it will not deploy the main force of 3,500 until it is clear the shaky cease-fire is solid and its troops will be safe.
That was cast into doubt just before the first troops were due to arrive, when renewed violence erupted around the town of Tetovo, near the rebels' main strongholds. An elderly man and a Macedonian police officer were reported killed in the exchanges of mortar and small-arms fire.
NATO officials said the rest of the mission could be authorized within days.
"I think it (the decision on full deployment) should be moving along fairly rapidly. We could be talking about a matter of days," NATO spokesman Maj. Barry Johnson told reporters in Macedonia.
The main force will be led by the British, with contributions from 13 other European countries and a small number from the United States.
Their mandate is strictly limited to collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels within a time frame of just 30 days and then leave.