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Macedonia: Church's Shelling Ratchets Up Propaganda War

Today NATO authorized the deployment of 3,500 troops to Macedonia to start collecting and destroying the weapons of ethnic Albanian insurgents. The decision comes nine days after a peace deal was signed but just one day after the shelling of a Macedonian Orthodox church in a village near Tetovo. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, Albanian rebels deny any role in the church's destruction and instead accuse Macedonian forces of the shelling.

Prague, 22 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first Orthodox church to suffer serious damage in the fighting that has raged in northwestern Macedonia for six months has Macedonians up in arms.

Macedonian state television referred to the destruction of the Lesok monastery's Saint Atanasij Church as an "anti-Christian, anti-civilization, inhuman, and barbarous act by Albanian terrorists."

President Boris Trajkovski issued a statement saying that "the shelling of the monastery is just one more confirmation of the double [standard of] morality of the terrorist bands who talk demonstratively about peace but actually continue to fight for new territory, which they are taking from Macedonian and other non-Albanian inhabitants."

The government similarly decried the bombing as "vandalistic destruction" and called on the OSCE and the European Monitoring Mission to dispatch observers to the scene "to confirm that Albanian terrorists had committed this act."

The insurgent ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK) denies it was behind the bombing. That statement was reinforced by two UCK commanders in the Tetovo area in separate interviews last night with RFE/RL's Albanian unit.

UCK commander "Gjini" says the UCK has sought to protect religious objects from damage in the fighting:

"From the start of the fighting, we have had special respect for religious buildings, regardless of religion. We will condemn such acts until the end. We can't take the blame for the shelling which continues in this area. And we certainly aren't able to take the Macedonians' shells and destroy their monuments."

Similarly, UCK commander "Iliri" says the Lesok monastery has been in the line of fire of Macedonian forces since heavy fighting erupted around the village last month: "This was done by the Macedonian side to divert attention from the burned and demolished homes [of Albanians] in this village and in [nearby] Neprosteno."

There is growing suspicion that the shelling of the church in Lesok might not have been committed by the UCK but rather by Macedonian forces opposed to the nine-day-old peace declaration. However, it could also be the work of the UCK's hard-line splinter group, the Albanian National Army (AKSh).

News reports show the church's two towers still standing but most of the rest of the church destroyed.

The Macedonian Orthodox metropolitan of Polog and Kumanovo, Kiril, described the destruction to reporters:

"This lovely, sacred shrine has been turned into a ruin. What are left are the portal on the west side, some of the gallery and the bell [towers]. But the main cupola, the apse, the iconostasis were all destroyed."

The monastery dates from the mid-14th century. It was reduced to rubble at the end of the 17th century while under Ottoman rule and was only rebuilt in 1927.

Culture Minister Ganka Samoilovska-Svetanova denounced what she called "Albanian terrorists" for the bombing and accused the international community of collusion, noting that the attack occurred after a Western-mediated peace deal and amidst a cease-fire. She compared the perpetrators to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia:

"World history probably only knows one such example -- that's the destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan by the Taliban. I'd like to say that not only in Afghanistan but here in the Balkans, there are such Taliban [militiamen] but with the difference that the international community condemned this act [in Afghanistan] but some international factions are supporting the Balkan Taliban."

Macedonia's culture minister appealed to the international community to help prevent further destruction of cultural monuments in Macedonia.

The EU, NATO, and the OSCE have all condemned the church bombing, as has the United States. U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker:

"We deplore categorically last night's destruction of the Orthodox monastery at Lesok and condemn all acts of destruction of cultural and religious sites. The perpetrators of this disgraceful act should be ashamed of themselves."

Archbishop Stefan of Ohrid at a news conference in Skopje yesterday (21 August) warned against a repetition:

"I ask that the event at Lesok not be repeated against any sacred object, neither of the Macedonian Orthodox Church nor of the Islamic community, or any other religious group in this country."

Although this is believed to be the first Macedonian Orthodox church destroyed in more than six months of fighting, several mosques used for worship by Albanian Muslims have been destroyed. In June, Macedonian rioters burned down a mosque in a Bitola suburb. Two weeks ago, rioters were reported to have looted and burned a mosque in Prilep in central Macedonia. Village mosques were reported to have been repeatedly targeted since May by Macedonian security forces in fighting with Albanian rebels west of Kumanovo.

The pattern of destruction of religious shrines has been repeated throughout the wars in the former Yugoslavia since 1991, when Serbs and Croats attacked each other's churches. In Bosnia, Serb paramilitaries destroyed all but one of some 200 mosques in the territory they held during the 1992-95 war. Serb forces destroyed or seriously damaged more than 200 mosques in Kosovo during fighting in 1998-99.

When the fighting ended and Serb forces withdrew from the province, Albanians began similarly destroying Serbian Orthodox churches as symbols of Serb colonialism.