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Wednesday, 22 August, 2001, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Macedonian church blast deepens rifts
The destroyed church at Lesok
The blast is seen as an attack on Macedonian culture
The destruction of an Orthodox church in a Macedonian village has widened the already bitter divide between the country's two communities.

Little but rubble was left of the famous St Atanasius church in Lesok, a tiny Macedonian Slav enclave in the heart of territory now held by ethnic Albanian fighters.


This was a premeditated, well-executed attack

Harald Schenker, OSCE
Government ministers immediately blamed the rebels, who in turn accused the Macedonians of blasting the church, built inside a 14th century monastery, in an attempt to discredit them.

But observers say that whoever is ultimately responsible, the attack was designed to undermine an already fragile ceasefire as the country struggles to find peace.

Shattered identities

The BBC's Jeremy Bowen says the Macedonians see the destruction of the church as a direct attack on their religion, culture and identity.

Next to the church is the grave of Kyril Pejcinovik, the father of the modern Macedonian language, adding particular symbolism to the site.

Observer takes photo of ruined church
Highly symbolic
"This just confirms the anti-historical mental make-up of the Albanian terrorists and historically locates them in the period of savages when simply nothing sacred existed," said the interior ministry in a statement.

The minister for culture, Ganka Samoilova-Cvetnovska, compared the act to the destruction of ancient Buddha statues by the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Precedents

But the destruction of religious sites by ethnic Albanians has not been a feature of the conflict in Macedonia as it was during the war in Kosovo, when dozens of Serb Orthodox sites were targeted.

Ethnic Albanians
Members of both communities have fled
In recent months the religious sites damaged in Macedonia have belonged to the ethnic Albanian community.

Earlier this month, Macedonians set fire to a mosque in the southern town of Prilep after 10 of their soldiers were killed, say international officials.

Observers from the European security body, the OSCE, are now investigating the Lesok blast.

"This would be the first destruction of a religious site here on the part of the ethnic Albanians if they are found responsible," said Harald Schenker, spokesman for the OSCE mission to Macedonia.

"Whoever it was, this was a premeditated, well-executed attack," he told BBC News Online.

Just 15 Macedonians remain in Lesok. As in other villages and towns across the country, their inhabitants have fled.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen
"Someone wants things to get worse"
General Wesley Clark, ex Nato commander in Kosovo
"There's still violence in the area"

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See also:

22 Aug 01 | Europe
Green light for Macedonia mission
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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