WASHINGTON (AP) _ Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that U.S. peacekeeping troops in the Balkans may eventually help disarm fighters in Macedonia ``but we have not made a commitment yet.''
Testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee, Powell said some NATO allies had proposed establishing disarmament points in the conflict-scarred country to collect weapons once ethnic Albanian militants agree to turn in their arms if peace terms with the government are worked out.
President Bush supports NATO's decision to help Macedonia with disarmament, and expressed that support last week during meetings in Belgium, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. ``We hope that the political parties in Skopje can reach an agreement quickly,'' Fleischer said.
Powell said the NATO troops would not be ``going after the people,'' but merely setting up sites to recover weapons. Powell said some 700 U.S. peacekeepers handling logistics in Macedonia and several hundred others patrolling the border from the Kosovo side might become involved.
But in response to the chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., Powell said it was a decision ``we don't need to make yet.''
NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, in Washington to meet with Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, confirmed that the alliance is thinking of deploying 3,000 or more soldiers to supervise disarming National Liberation Army fighters if there is a peace agreement.
Robertson declined to say whether the U.S. military has agreed to participate, but said other NATO member countries have volunteered.
``They would be armed, carrying weapons for their own protection, of course,'' Robertson told reporters, referring to the proposed NATO force.
As for the timing, Robertson said the government of Macedonia and the ethnic Albanian rebels would first have to reach peace terms, a difficult prospects since talks have stalled.
``It will happen when and only when there is an agreed cease-fire,'' Robertson said. ``This is not an armed intervention.''
Biden, who took an active role in urging the Clinton administration to use force to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo from Serbian ``ethnic cleansing,'' told Powell ``we cannot temporize'' in making decisions about Macedonia.
In reply, Powell said the Bush administration was pressing the government in Skopje to ``deal with the aspiration and hopes of the Albanian minority'' by bolstering their rights and participation in Macedonia society.
That is the only way, Powell said, to keep moderate ethnic Albanians from joining ``the extremists.''
Also during the hearing, Sen. Jesse Helms, senior Republican on the committee, criticized President Bush for ``an excessively personal endorsement'' of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Helms said he was ``raising my eyebrows'' over Bush's assertion that Putin was ``trustworthy,'' ``a remarkable leader'' and a man with whom ``we share common values.''
Helms read a long list of complaints about Putin's leadership. He said the Russian press had felt the ``jackboot of repression,'' arms-control treaty obligations were being violated and dangerous weapons technologies transferred to ``rogue states.''
``For these reasons,'' Helms said, ``Mr. Putin was far from deserving the powerful political prestige and influence that comes from an excessively personal endorsement by the president of the United States.''
In fact, the North Carolina senator said, ``Prematurely personalizing this relationship only undercuts the incentives he has to reorient Russia's domestic and foreign policy goals.''
At the outset, Biden praised Bush's actions in Europe and said he was ``very heartened'' by the talks Bush held with European leaders on issues of substance.
At the same time, Biden said he supports ``limited'' NATO military involvement in Macedonia. He said the few hundred American peacekeeping troops already there need protection, and by moving in more NATO forces now, there would not be a need for many more later.
``I would think we would want to protect them,'' Biden said.
Biden took over the chair of the committee from Helms when Democrats regained control of the Senate with the defection of Republican Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, who became an independent.