Delay in sending forces to Macedonia

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Nato delayed its decision yesterday on whether to send its main force to Macedonia, instead dispatching its most senior military officer to assess the situation there.

General Joseph Ralston, the supreme commander of Nato forces in Europe, will go to Skopje on Monday to size up the situation, reporting back to the alliance's 19 ambassadors early next week before they decide whether to take the plunge.

Yesterday's meeting in Brussels took place as a 400-strong British advance guard began arriving in Macedonia to set up a headquarters, but with continuing doubt over the durability of the ceasefire.

On Wednesday Nato agreed to send the 400 British troops but several countries remain unsure that the situation is safe enough to deploy the contingent of 3,500 men. They are due to be sent as part of Operation Essential Harvest, a 30-day mission to help disarm Albanian rebels under a negotiated peace deal.

Alliance officials concede Nato faces a dilemma: deploying troops in an unstable theatre could leave a small force dangerously exposed. But if it delays too long, the Western-brokered peace deal may collapse. An enduring ceasefire is one of Nato's preconditions for sending its men and that looked in doubt after a policeman was shot dead in Tetovo on Thursday, apparently by a rebel sniper. Rebels said the Macedonians started the fighting.

A spokesman for the British troops, Alexander Dick, said: "Over the coming days, we will need to assess very carefully the current ceasefire."

The advance unit will contact all sides and will also try to assess the sincerity of rebel pledges to hand their weapons to Nato troops.