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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Nato 'error' enrages Macedonians
Macedonian army soldiers and civilians protest against the deal
There was anger in Skopje at the Nato-brokered deal
By Jonathan Charles in Skopje

You're a spy for the Albanian terrorists! You're filming Macedonian army positions so that the terrorists can pinpoint them!

The accusations came thick and fast. In a village near to where the army was shelling ethnic Albanian rebels we was surrounded by a mob of angry farmers. Many of them were swinging pitchforks and clubs - threatening to beat us.

Aracinovo burns after Macedonian bombardment
Aracinovo had been under a heavy bombardment
It was a terrifying moment and the only way out was to run to our car.

It was just one of many angry and violent confrontations I have had to face here during the past two months - two months in which Macedonia has seemed to be heading ever closer to an all-out civil war.

At first Macedonians were polite if distant to the many British and Americans here. They saw the UK, in particular, as its ally in a battle against rebels who wanted to partition the country into two enclaves - one for ethnic Albanians, the other for Macedonians. The British had even offered help in training Macedonia's underskilled and under-equipped army.

But then, suddenly, all that changed. Many Macedonians believe that Nato - led by Britain and America - has switched sides.

PR mistake

The trigger for the outburst of Macedonian fury and anti-western feeling was a single event. On the afternoon of 25 June the rebels were allowed to leave the village of Aracinovo, just a few miles from the capital Skopje, under a ceasefire deal brokered by the European Union and Nato.

The rebels, who had been holding the village for much of the previous fortnight, were permitted to travel out with all their weapons including heavy mortars and surface-to-air missiles.

Convoy of buses escorted by US vehicles
The US military escort angered onlookers
Macedonians could hardly believe their eyes - the enemy was not just moving out but British diplomats appeared to be coordinating the whole operation and providing the transport. As so often in war zones, a hastily organised event then started going badly wrong.

Watching on the outskirts of Aracinovo, I saw four buses and a truck arrive to carry the rebels. But there were too many people for the number of vehicles available. The British diplomats on the ground hurriedly called a nearby US base, supposed to provide support for the Nato operation in neighbouring Kosovo, to ask for more buses.

As far as the protesters were concerned, all Westerners were now the enemy

Within hours, they drove in but were accompanied by an unasked for American armoured column including 80 troops - there to provide protection for the buses.

All of a sudden, to Macedonian eyes, Nato looked as though it was giving the rebels a military escort. What was a naive error, made because the Americans did not want to put their military bus drivers at risk, started to look like a planned operation in which Nato troops had now switched sides to support the rebels.

An angry Macedonian accosted me.

Amidst lots of finger pointing, he said: "Nato betrayed the Slavs in Kosovo during the war there two years ago and now you're about to betray us."

Hate figures

Once again I was forced to beat a quick retreat. But the sight of Nato troops transporting the rebels was soon broadcast on Macedonia's television news.

A cock-up had become a conspiracy

Within minutes, thousands of people had gathered outside the parliament in the centre of Skopje.

People were firing automatic weapons in the air, calling for the president's resignation and furious that Nato had got involved.

As far as the protesters were concerned, all Westerners were now the enemy. My cameraman and producer went into the crowd to film the demonstrators who were growing more violent as each moment passed. Seeing the BBC television crew, the crowd lashed out, kicking and beating them and leaving them bloodied and injured.

Macedonian army soldiers and civilians protest against the peace deal
Some Macedonians find it hard to trust Nato
The Macedonians could not vent their fury on British diplomats so a foreign TV crew became the next best thing. Anyone and anything foreign became a target as the night went on.

I had to cross Skopje to get to a television satellite dish to send my report to London. I was only able to avoid a beating by getting one of my Serb colleagues to hail a taxi and pretend we were both Slav tourists needing to get to a hotel. I sat in the back of the taxi saying nothing and watching the frenzied mob smash up buildings.

So now the westerners have joined the ethnic Albanians as figures of hate - and all because of a genuine mistake by Nato and American fears that their bus drivers were at risk. A cock-up had become a conspiracy.

Until then the European Union and Nato had been hoping to mediate between the Macedonians and the Albanians - the middle men in any future political dialogue.

Now, with many Macedonians suspicious of the West's motives, one way of preventing the country's slide into a civil war may have been closed off.

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25 Jun 01 | Europe
Macedonia parliament besieged
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