Artillery begins to rumble again in the Balkans

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The Independent Online

The sound of artillery fire echoed ominously across the Balkans again yesterday when heavy fighting broke out for the second day on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia.

The sound of artillery fire echoed ominously across the Balkans again yesterday when heavy fighting broke out for the second day on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia.

About 150 American soldiers with armoured troop carriers from the international force in Kosovo (K-For) moved on to the border opposite the Macedonian village of Tanusevci, occupied by Albanian rebels. Helicopters and an unmanned spy plane flew over the battleground. Reporters were ordered out of the area.

The Macedonian army called up reservists and the capital, Skopje, just 20 miles south of the fighting, was heavily guarded, with checkpoints on all roads. The border with Kosovo, Pristina's main lifeline to the outside world, was closed for the second day.

There were said to be 200 armed rebels in the area, double earlier estimates, and the Bulgarian President, Peter Stoyanov, offered to send troops to assist the Macedonian army.

There were unconfirmed reports that the fighting had spread beyond Tanusevci, to the neighbouring village of Malina, and the Kodra Pura mountain. But the rebels appeared to have begun retreating by evening. Witnesses said some fled across the border into Kosovo, which would support Macedonian claims that the rebels are based in the province, and others were pinned down by fire in the woods between Tanusevci and the border. American troops said a few rebels had entered Kosovo, dumped their weapons and changed into civilian clothes. "We are taking steps right now to prevent that happening," said Major Jim Marshall, a spokesman for the Americans. Macedonian officials have bitterly criticised K-For. They say they are not doing enough to patrol the Kosovo border. The Macedonian Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, accused Nato of an "indolent treatment of the crisis".

This is the Balkan nightmare Macedonia has been predicting for years - and the West has ignored. Macedonia was so reluctant to allow refugees in from Kosovo during the 1999 Nato air strikes because of fears they would encourage desires for autonomy among Macdonia's Albanian minority. About 30 per cent of the Macedonian population is Albanian.

Now Macdonia's nightmare threatens to become the international community's as well, a rebel army operating freely from UN-administered Kosovo, under the nose of Nato, and occupying areas of neighbouring countries.

An apparently separate group of Albanian rebels has occupied a narrow strip of southern Serbia with a big Albanian population. The Belgrade government claims there is nothing coincidental about the two insurgencies.

On the road from Belgrade to Pristina, police were still investigating the site where a bomb went off under a bus of Kosovo Serbs escorted by K-For a few weeks ago, trying to work out how the attack was coordinated.

Two men have been arrested, but refuse to co-operate. Also unclear is who is behind the National Liberation Army, whose black-uniformed guerrillas were fleeing from Tanusevci to Kosovo yesterday.

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