London (CNSNews.com) - The British government admitted Thursday that the NATO operation its troops are heading up in Macedonia may exceed its stipulated 30-day time limit.
Speaking during a visit to Skopje, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it was his "best bet" that the operation to collect rebel weapons would end on time, but he could not be sure.
British forces make up almost half of the 4,000 strong Operation Essential Harvest, which as of Thursday had collected around 1,500 weapons surrendered by ethnic Albanian rebels.
Although this is already more than one-third of the total number NATO expects to collect and destroy, there are continuing concerns about the quality of the weapons being handed over.
Macedonian and other critics also say the 3,300 weapon target comprise a fraction of the large number of weapons believed to be available to the rebels, who have fought a six-month insurgency against government forces.
Amid fears of "mission creep," NATO governments agreed from the start to carry out the weapons' collecting operation on condition it was completed within 30 days. They also emphasized that if the agreement stalled or violence broke out, the troops would simply pull out.
But Straw said Thursday nothing in the unstable region could be taken for granted.
"Nothing in the Balkans is inevitable," he told British radio. "It could change, but it took a lot of discussion amongst the partners in NATO to agree this 30 days.
"My best bet is that the decision will stand and at 30 days this operation will come to an end, but I can't be certain."
Also Thursday, NATO secretary-general George Robertson acknowledged that the weapons collection mission may take a few more days than planned.
But he stressed there would be no long-terms NATO role in Macedonia.
Both Straw and Robertson defended the 3,300 weapon target. The foreign secretary said it constituted a "substantial proportion" of the arms available to the rebels. There was no question, he added, that removing the weapons would deny the rebels "their fire power."
Robertson told Macedonian lawmakers earlier they had nothing to worry about with regard to the quantity and quality of weapons being collected.
"I know the issue of weapon numbers is controversial," he conceded, but added that NATO had not been asked to collect every illegally-held weapon in the country.
The important thing was that the rebels were voluntarily surrendering their weapons, he said, and that NATO was "helping take the gun out of Macedonian politics."
Robertson questioned figures of 70,000 or more weapons available to the rebels that have been circulating in Macedonia.
Apart from the 3,300 weapons, he said, NATO hoped to collect 600 mines, hand grenades and explosives, 1,100 rounds of mortar ammunition and 110,000 rounds of small arms ammunition. "These numbers are very close to NATO's intelligence estimates regarding their holdings."
Robertson also said the rebels were delivering their promise when it came to the quality of weapons being handed over.
Doubts about the weapons handover are not alone in raising concerns about the success of the NATO mission.
There is no guarantee the Macedonian government will be able to keep its side of the bargain: In return for voluntary rebel disarmament, the government has promised to implement step-by-step measures to improve the rights of minority ethnic Albanian citizens.
A two-thirds majority of the 120-seat Macedonian parliament is required to pass the peace plan. But if lawmakers reject the reforms in a vote this weekend, the government may have to call a national referendum.
Failure to pass the reforms could result in a collapse of the fragile peace agreement, with NATO finding itself stuck in the middle of a hot conflict zone.
Earlier this week, a UK-based military analyst warned how the situation could spin out of control.
"Macedonian nationalists may decide, in anticipation of the virtual partition of the country, to drive the Albanian minority from its territory, including the 300,000 who live in the Skopje area alone," said Richard Bennett of Armed Forces Intelligence (AFI) Research.
"The resulting chaos and violence would certainly bring about the risk of a full-scale civil war," he said.
"Whatever weapons NATO may have collected could be quickly replaced ten times over unless the borders with Kosovo and Albania are sealed tightly and stern action was taken to finally disarm the [Albanian rebels] - actions that many independent analysts and the Macedonian Government itself believe a pro-Albanian NATO will not condone."