The War in the Balkans: Macedonians attack French troops

Nato Targeted
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EVEN DURING peaceful times, the steep ravine running through the village of Kuceviste is an untidy place. Beneath the pretty brick houses and the dusty village road, the ground drops away 60 feet to a stream overgrown with nettles, where empty detergent bottles and discarded egg cartons bob against the stones. Goats nose among grubby plastic bags, soggy mattresses and rusty cans.

But yesterday the river contained a very large, very burnt and very unusual piece of rubbish. The story of how it got there and who sent it over the cliff is a cautionary tale about the future course of Nato's campaign in the Balkans.

The object at the bottom of the stream was the incinerated shell of a Peugeot P4, the French army's version of the Land Rover, and a few hours before, on Tuesday evening, it was driving in a convoy with three other jeeps along the village road, 12 miles north of the Macedonian capital, Skopje. The French soldiers at the wheel were members of the 12,000-strong Nato force in Macedonia, on a routine journey to fix another vehicle which had broken down.

Within the refugee camps and among Macedonia's ethnic Albanian population, Nato soldiers are regarded as saviours and guardians. But among the majority Slav population, feelings are mixed. Here, where the convoy stopped, they are openly hostile - as far as its people are concerned, Kuceviste is a little piece of Serbia marooned in Macedonia.

What happened next is disputed. On the one side is the story told by Major Eric Mongnot and Lt Orleans, French officers at the Nato press information centre in Skopje. On the other is a group of Serb men, whom I spoke to in Kuceviste early yesterday afternoon as they sat drinking beer. The Serbs say the soldiers entered the town whistling at women, making obscene gestures and pointing guns; the soldiers insist they were doing no such thing. But both agree on what happened next.

A group of local men blocked the path of the P4s, throwing stones and smashing the windscreen. The two soldiers scrambled out and into the second vehicle under a hail of stones, which struck them on the body and face. As the three intact vehicles turned around and drove away, the stricken jeep was set on fire and pushed into the ravine. Yesterday afternoon, as the two injured men lay in hospital, a column of nine French military vehicles, including armoured cars, an armoured ambulance and two huge cranes, trundled into Kuceviste and hauled away the skeletal Peugeot.

Wherever there are large numbers of soldiers, from Okinawa to Suffolk, there are tensions with the local population but in Macedonia they have particularly worrying undertones. Tuesday's incident was the worst, but certainly not the first, spot of bother involving Nato soldiers. According to Major Mongnot, there have been two or three every week since Nato troops arrived in Macedonia last October. "Since the beginning of our stay here, we go into Serb villages and we get stoned," said Lt Orleans. "If there is one little stone, we don't go back there again. We never provoke." But as one of the village men put it yesterday: "They know this is a Serbian village, and we don't want them here. Just the presence of Nato soldiers is provocation."

If Nato does launch a ground war against Yugoslavia, and if Macedonia is its base, it will have to contend not only with the Serbs in front, but with the likes of the jeep-trashers of Kuceviste.