Macedonian policeman killed as British troops head to Skopje

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A Macedonian policemen was shot and killed yesterday delivering a serious blow to the country's fragile ceasefire on the eve of the arrival of the first British troops in Skopje.

Rahim Thaci, the director of the medical centre in the mainly Albanian town of Tetovo, said the policeman had died of wounds after a shooting at a checkpoint in the town, the second largest in Macedonia. Army sources blamed ethnic Albanian rebels for the killing, the first of a member of the security forces since a ceasefire was declared last Sunday as part of a comprehensive peace plan to end the six-month rebellion.

Earlier, the commander of a 400-strong UK mission which arrives in Macedonia today warned that Nato will only send its full 3,500 troops if the British troops judge the situation stable enough. On Wednesday Nato authorised the despatch of 400 British soldiers to set up a headquarters and pave the way for the bigger deployment which will disarm the Albanian guerrilla fighters under a peace deal.

Nato ambassadors meet today to discuss whether to give political approval for the full mission. One possibility is that they will give the go-ahead, so long as none of the alliance countries objects by a specific date early next week. Already some military officials have been stung by a widespread view that Nato is bound to get sucked into a longer operation than the 30-day weapons collection exercise envisaged.

Yesterday the commanding officer of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier Barney White-Spunner, who left last night ahead of most of his men, was cautious even about the prospects of the bigger force being sent to Macedonia.

Speaking at Colchester garrison before his departure he said: "We are going to see if the conditions are right so we can advise Nato whether to deploy this force to run the weapon collections operation. There is not some great juggernaut rolling which some people believe there is. Nato is yet to take the decision to deploy this force, and that's a key point."

The brigadier said that he and General Lange, Nato's Commander in Skopje, will look for evidence that the ceasefire will be "enduring", and for signs of readiness that all parties, and in particular the ethnic Albanians, will abide by the agreement. Even if Nato ambassadors give the go-ahead for the bigger mission today, the military commanders could still decide against airlifting the bulk of the troops if conditions look too dangerous.

Yesterday there were reports of sporadic shooting in the northwestern town of Tetovo and a checkpoint cin the north was attacked by rocket launchers and mortars on Wednesday afternoon. However, before the shooting of the policeman, Nato officials judged the ceasefire was generally holding because the use of heavy weapons had become rare.

The prospect of a Nato force entering Macedonia became real on Tuesday when the National Liberation Army agreed to hand over 2,800 to 3000 weapons in exchange for a wide-ranging amnesty for most of its members. However officials are concerned splinter faction, the Albanian National Army, has vowed to fight on. The ANA has claimed responsibility for recent attacks including an ambush in which 10 soldiers died last week.

* A Bosnian Serb army colonel yesterday pleaded not guilty in The Hague to charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.