War in the Balkans: Meeting at Nato Headquarters - No invasion here, says Macedonia

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MACEDONIA RULED out use of its territory for an "aggressive" Nato ground invasion against Serbia yesterday, but said that Western troops could use it as a "staging post" before entering Kosovo to police an agreed peace deal. The statement came after a visit by Macedonian ministers to Nato headquarters in Brussels - the latest Western effort to woo the small, but strategically crucial former Yugoslav republic.

As Nato's warplanes continued bombarding Serb military targets in Kosovo, the council held an hour-long meeting with Macedonia's foreign and defence ministers, Aleksander Dimitrov and Nikola Kljusev, offering new security guarantees if they are attacked.

The ethnically and politically fragile Balkan state is being courted relentlessly. At Luxembourg on Thursday European Union foreign ministers agreed a package of financial and political blandishments. The Macedonians were offered an association agreement with Europe and a role in a new forum to stabilise the region. EU membership was specifically held out as an eventual prospect.

The EU also approved a package of financial aid worth 100 million euros (pounds 67m) for Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro to cover costs of sheltering refugees.

Despite Macedonia's brutal treatment of refugees, thousands of whom were deported from a border camp to Albania, official communiques have lavished praise on the Skopje government. Mr Kljusev said he had heard "words of gratitude, unlike some of the criticism that was showed among the media". He attacked the BBC and CNN for unfair reporting.

The Macedonians are sensitive about the possibility of providing a staging post for a ground invasion of Kosovo, and Mr Kljusev insisted yesterday that his territory could not "be used for any kind of military aggressive action against neighbouring territories".

But he drew a distinction between this and the movement of troops into Kosovo to police an agreement reached with Belgrade. "If there is the agreement of the Yugoslav government for entrance into Yugoslavia then they will be allowed. Unless this happened, the passing of the Nato forces into Yugoslavia cannot be accepted," he said.