Bullets fly and fires burn after Macedonia 'ceasefire'

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The blackened skeletons of houses were still smouldering on the frontline in Macedonia yesterday, more than 12 hours after they were hit by shellfire.

The melted remains of a car lay in the rubble. Civilians scurried for cover as sniper fire cracked through the streets. Terrified children peered out from the door of a darkened basement. This is what Macedonia's ceasefire looks like.

Nato's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Joseph Ralston, flew in yesterday to decide whether it is safe to deploy a Nato task force to disarm Albanian rebels. Nato says its task force, which will be predominantly British, will not go into action without a lasting ceasefire on the ground.

But while a Nato advance party, including 400 British soldiers, waited in the capital, Skopje, yesterday, on the frontline it was clear the ceasefire was not holding. In the village of Neprusteno, all that was left of some of the houses was a wall or two, and a pile of rubble. The smell of burning was everywhere. The Macedonian army shelled the village for four hours on Sunday night.

Western diplomats tried to play down the fighting, insisting that the ceasefire had only faltered and the peace process was on track. But Macedonian snipers were still firing into Neprusteno yesterday afternoon, the locals hiding behind walls every time the snap of gunfire echoed over the village. Cars drove past at high speed, their tyres squealing. At one point, a group of Western journalists inspecting burnt-out houses was fired upon.

In a dark basement at the end of a narrow alley, were five children. None had dared venture out of their shelter since the bombardment began. The youngest, Artan, aged nine, had been too terrified to sleep.

Fifteen people were crammed into the tiny basement – the entire extended Mustafi family. Murtezin Mustafi said: "There was shooting from all sides. It was terrible, sitting here, watching the houses burning, wondering when mine would be next." Mr Mustafi's house survived. But observers said two houses belonging to ethnic Macedonians who had fled the village were set on fire by locals, rather than hit by shells like the others.

The fighting in Neprusteno was just the latest in a series of ceasefire violations: there is some firing every day.

If it is deployed, the Nato task force of 3,500 will not act as peace-keepers, or force either side to disarm. Its mission is only to collect weapons voluntarily surrendered by the rebels. Western diplomats insist Nato is not coming here to patrol a "green line" dividing the country. But, for the moment, division is the reality.

Neprusteno is held by the Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (NLA); the Macedonian army's forward positions lie just across the main road in the village of Ratae. The NLA has enlarged an old dirt track into a road so Albanians can reach the villages around Neprusteno without braving the snipers and Macedonian police checkpoints on the main road.

Turning off the main highway from Skopje to Tetovo on to a country lane, you come to a tree trunk blocking the road. Behind it an NLA man stands on sentry duty; this is the start of rebel territory.

Both sides say they are still behind the peace process. But, with no final decision on whether the Nato task force will be deployed, there are disturbing signs that some are trying to derail the peace process.

Every major incident has coincided with an important development. The day before the Western-brokered peace deal was agreed, Macedonian police killed five rebels in Skopje, in what appeared to be an execution. On the day agreement was reached, 10 Macedonian soldiers were ambushed and killed– a second, little-known group of rebels claimed responsibility. The night before the ceremony to sign the deal, five Albanian civilians were killed by Macedonian police in a village just outside Skopje.

The fighting in Neprusteno was no different: it came on the eve of General Ralston's visit to decide whether the ceasefire is working. It was not clear which side started the firing – both, as ever, blamed the other.