An advance party of British troops was today setting out for Macedonia to begin Nato’s reconnaissance mission in the troubled Balkan state.
Some 40 engineers and logistics personnel from 16 Air Assault Brigade were flying out of HQ Wattisham Station in Suffolk.
A total of 400 British troops are expected to fly to Skopje over the weekend to begin the task of setting up a headquarters in the Macedonian capital.
Force commander Brigadier Barney White-Spunner was joining his men later today after a flight from Naples, Italy.
Yesterday he warned that the weapons collection operation would be scrapped if he did not find a commitment to peace.
The troops were arriving in the Balkans on Operation Bessemer just 24 hours after a Macedonian police officer was murdered by rebels.
But a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said the killing, blamed on Albanian extremists, would not prevent the mission getting under way.
‘‘It is a civil matter in Macedonia. It is not going to affect our operation in any way,’’ she said.
The officer was killed by a sniper at a checkpoint outside the second city of Tetovo, where the army came under fire from militant Albanians overnight.
Defence sources in London have been at pains to stress the operation will only go ahead if Government forces and the rebel Albanian Liberation Army (NLA) abide by the peace deal signed on Monday.
But they acknowledge that Nato Secretary General Lord Robertson is anxious to capitalise on the political momentum and get troops into the region as soon as possible.
‘‘Clearly George Robertson and ourselves want to get this process rolling,’’ one source said.
That could mean men from the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment could find themselves deployed in Macedonia as early as Monday.
Brig White-Spunner insisted that he needed evidence that both sides were committed to Monday’s agreement before the full British-dominated force, expected to number 3,500, is deployed.
He said: ‘‘There is not some great juggernaut rolling which some people believe there is.
‘‘Nato is yet to take the decision to deploy this force, and that’s a key point.’’
He said that could not happen unless conditions on the ground were correct.
‘‘What I am going to be looking for with General Lange, Nato commander in Skopje, when we get there is a ceasefire being enduring and being able to last.
‘‘We are looking for a readiness on the parties to abide by the agreement. In particular we are looking for a commitment on behalf of all the ethnic Albanian armed groups to abide by the agreement.
‘‘If those conditions are met, then the advice will go back and it’s a Nato decision to take as to proceed with the weapons collections.’’
The brigadier also stressed the limited nature of the mission.
He said: ‘‘We are not a disarmament mission, we are not a peacekeeping mission, we are not setting up some sort of green line and we are not providing security for one or other party.
‘‘We are here very simply to collect weapons which are going to be voluntarily given up by ethnic Albanian groups.
‘‘We are part of a much wider political agreement.
‘‘The reason that this will all work is because there has been a comprehensive agreement signed by the parties on Monday and this is part of that and this offers a real chance of a future for Macedonia and we are going to play our part in that.’’
Ministers are well aware of the dangers of getting ‘‘sucked in’’ to a more prolonged commitment in the region, which is why Nato has set a tight 30-day deadline for the main weapons collection phase of the operation.
Armed forces minister Adam Ingram has said the troops would defend themselves if they came under fire.