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Tuesday, 21 August, 2001, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Macedonia blast hits monastery
British liaison officer Capt Gareth Hicks (C) meets ethnic Albanian rebels
Nato liaison officers are already talking to rebels
An explosion has seriously damaged an Orthodox Christian monastery in Lesok, near the scene of heavy fighting between Macedonian Government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels over the past few months.

Macedonian Government officials blamed rebels for the blast, condemning it as "barbaric", but rebel fighters in the area told a BBC correspondent they were not responsible.

Nato ambassadors have been hearing advice from US General Joseph Ralston on whether the alliance should proceed with a full-scale mission to oversee the rebels' disarmament.

General Joseph Ralston, Nato supreme commander
General Joseph Ralston briefed Nato
However the Nato council has delayed until Wednesday its decision on whether to go ahead with the operation. Ambassadors will now consult their governments.

Despite the fragility of the ceasefire, the alliance is widely expected to give the green light for the deployment of a 3,500-strong force.

The overnight blast badly damaged a church inside the St Atanasius monastery in the village of Lesok, about 8km (5 miles) from Tetovo.

The village was previously ethnically mixed but most of the Macedonian inhabitants have left.

Symbolic importance

The monastery is of great symbolic importance to Macedonians because of its age and beauty.

The BBC's Jacky Rowland, who visited the site, said most of the church has been reduced to rubble, with just the front facade and two towers still standing.

Nato has said it will send a further 3,500 troops on a 30-day operation once it is confident a shaky ceasefire between the rebels and government forces has taken hold.

16 Air Assault Brigade in Macedonia check map
Nato forces are pressing ahead with weapons collection plans
Nato's supreme commander General Joseph Ralston visited Macedonia on Monday to see the security situation for himself.

On the basis of his report, Nato's ruling council is widely expected to give the go-ahead for deployment.

The plan is that the rebels will collect their own weapons and deposit them at pre-arranged collection sites.

Nato troops will then move in, seal the area, pick up the guns for destruction in a third country and leave.

Peace moves

A 400-strong British-led advance guard is already on the ground, and has been meeting rebel leaders to discuss details of disarmament.

The rebels' agreement to lay down their arms is a fundamental part of the peace deal hammered out with the Macedonian Government, under pressure from Nato and the European Union.

Peace accord's key points
Amends constitution to make country civic society of all ethnic groups, not just Macedonians
Makes Albanian second official language in some areas
More ethnic Albanians in police and other institutions
Allows degree of self-rule in Albanian -dominated areas
Census to be held to establish country's exact ethnic mix ahead of elections
The two sides agreed to begin talks about changing the constitution which ethnic Albanians complained left them feeling like second-class citizens.

The peace accord gives Albanian official gives the Albanian language official status in areas where ethnic Albanians make up 20% or more of the population.

It also aims to make the police force more representative.

Despite the ceasefire, the atmosphere in the country remains tense, says our correspondent.

Macedonian fears focus on a deep-seated doubt that the rebels will hand in more than a fraction of their weapons, and on the emergence of new more radical rebel groups which do not respect the agreement.

Albanian fears focus on what happens if Nato forces complete their mission and leave.

They fear that the Macedonian security forces may seek revenge on the Albanian population, with unarmed international monitors unable to help them.

The outbreak of violence in a country believed to have escaped the turmoil of other Balkan states grabbed the outside world's attention.

It also prompted concern to avoid a repeat of the bloodshed and upheaval seen during the Bosnian war.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen
"It could get much more complicated"
The BBC's Colin Blane reports
reports on the latest diplomatic developments
Antonio Milososki of the Macedonian government
"Albanian extreme groups are not prepared to respect the ceasefire"

Key stories

Features

Viewpoints

AUDIO VIDEO
See also:

21 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia's bitter divide
17 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia mission 'too short'
16 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia: The mission
06 Aug 01 | Europe
Nato ready for Macedonia action
20 Mar 01 | Europe
The military balance
02 May 00 | Europe
Profile: General Joseph Ralston
20 Aug 01 | Europe
Nato ready for Macedonia action
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