Fighting escalates between Macedonian government forces and rebels

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The Independent Online

Heavy mortar barrages echoed through the hills surrounding Tetovo early this morning as fighting escalated between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in the start of a long promised government offensive to flush out the insurgents.

Heavy mortar barrages echoed through the hills surrounding Tetovo early this morning as fighting escalated between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in the start of a long promised government offensive to flush out the insurgents.

The sustained attacks came as both sides were warning of a major actions. In recent days, the military had acquired more firepower and the insurgents' popularity and ranks were swelling.

The early morning explosions were the heaviest in days. A convoy of armored vehicles rumbled through central Tetovo just before 6am, turning toward the ethnic Albanian village of Gajre, 2 1/2 miles outside the center of Tetovo. Yesterday, rebels and Macedonian gunners had exchanged fire on several occasions in the early afternoon.

Three tanks also later moved through the central area, kicking up clouds of dust and smoke as they drove through the city's Slavic neighborhoods. People in those areas gathered on street corners and cheered as the tracks ground down the cobblestone streets.

Dust and smoke rose above the mountains just outside the city center. A few small fires burned out of control.

The Macedonian army confirmed that the military began a "strong operation to clear out the terrain from the terrorists on the Sara Mountain."

"We are using all available means," Blagoja Markovski, the army spokesman, said.

The barrage came just one day after helicopters thundered over Mount Sar Planina, the focus of attacks south west of the city's center, firing several rockets that sent up a large plume of dirt and smoke. It was not immediately clear what they were targeting or whether anyone was wounded.

The choppers were MI-24 attack helicopters acquired just a day earlier from Ukraine.

The helicopter attack also came a few hours after two shells apparently fired from rebel positions slammed into a Slavic neighbourhood near a police checkpoint, spraying shrapnel through a cobblestone alley and injuring four people.

The ethnic Albanian struggle in Macedonia has been linked to the war in Kosovo.

Although the rebels in Macedonia say their aim is more rights for ethnic Albanians within Macedonia, the government accuses them of seeking independence and drawing on Kosovo for fighters and weapons.

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