Ceasefire strains as British troops land at Skopje

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The Independent Online

Hercules transport aircraft thundered over Macedonia's capital yesterday as hundreds of British soldiers arrived to begin Nato's latest mission in the Balkans. The alliance's commanders insisted that their mission to supervise the disarmament of Albanian rebels would not go ahead without a lasting ceasefire, but on the ground yesterday the signs were that Nato may have stepped into yet another Balkans quagmire.

The alliance's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Joseph Ralston, is to visit Macedonia today to decide whether it is safe to deploy the full Nato task force of 3,500 ­ 1,200 of which will be provided by Britain.

But with the battle lines still drawn between the Albanian rebels and Macedonian security forces, and a shaky ceasefire only just holding, a decision by Nato to pull out now could be politically disastrous, and even lead to full-scale civil war.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Poffley, of Britain's 13 Air Assault Support Regiment, said: "Speaking personally, I think you can take nothing for granted in the Balkans." He blinked in the harsh Macedonian sunlight as his men set up a support headquarters at Skopje airport. "It's important we respect the views of all factions."

About 400 British troops are due to have arrived in Macedonia by today, making up the bulk of an advance mission, alongside soldiers from countries including the Czech Republic, Norway and Greece. Their job is to set up logistics for the main task force, at the same time as determining whether the full force can be deployed safely. British SAS troops are believed to be reconnoitring areas affected by the fighting.

Nato says the full force will not deploy unless the ceasefire is respected by all sides. So far, that has not been the case, with repeated violations. Nato also insists it is not arriving to patrol a division of the country. But, for the time being, division is the reality on the ground.

Yesterday journalists streamed up the winding mountain road ­ which Macedonian snipers still fire on despite the ceasefire ­ from the main Albanian city of Tetovo to Sipkovica, the remote village that is quickly becoming the rebels' unofficial capital. Ali Ahmeti, the rebels' political leader, held his first press conference there yesterday. He reiterated that the Albanians would disarm, as he told The Independent last week. "We believe the war is over," Mr Ahmeti proclaimed from the disused school room he uses as a base.

Privately, some in Nato accept that the rebels are unlikely to hand over all their weapons. Guns did not arrive in Macedonia with the rebellion: the country's Albanians have always been armed, every family has its gun, and that is unlikely to change now. But handing over some weapons is considered to be an important gesture from the rebels.

The sight of Nato troops setting up camp in and around Skopje is nothing new for Macedonians. The K-For peacekeeping force in Kosovo has based its operations in Macedonia for two years ­ and some of the new British arrivals are staying in a disused shoe factory converted into K-For's rear headquarters.

But the K-For connection is creating problems of its own. It is no surprise that Macedonia's Albanians are welcoming Nato with open arms, while the ethnic Macedonians are furious the troops are here at all. Nato ­ and in particular the Americans and the British ­ are still regarded as saviours by Albanians in Kosovo, after the 1999 bombing campaign drove Slobodan Milosevic's security forces out of the province.

But that, and the West's subsequent failure to prevent Albanians ethnically cleansing Kosovo of Serb civilians, are making ethnic Macedonians deeply suspicious of Nato.

Those feelings were clear at the Blace border crossing into Kosovo yesterday, where Macedonian protesters blocked off K-For's only effective supply route into the province. Everything from hamburgers to tanks enters the province through the gorge at Blace. But nothing was getting through yesterday, as the nationalist World Macedonian Congress blocked the route with old cars and piles of earth. Police stood by, doing nothing to remove the blockade.