Fighting in Balkans spreads on two fronts

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The Independent Online

The spectre of war continued to stalk the Balkans yesterday, as intense fighting spread deeper into Macedonia, and a Yugoslav policeman died in renewed clashes on the Serbian boundary with Kosovo.

The spectre of war continued to stalk the Balkans yesterday, as intense fighting spread deeper into Macedonia, and a Yugoslav policeman died in renewed clashes on the Serbian boundary with Kosovo.

In Brussels, Macedonia's Foreign Minister, Srgan Kerim, urged Nato to seal the Kosovo-Macedonian border. Macedonia closed all its border crossings with Kosovo yesterday as the violence intensified.

Yesterday's combat in Macedonia struck the village of Brest. The hills around echoed continuously with heavy-calibre fire. Macedonian authorities said the fighting started when a humanitarian aid convoy was pinned down by fire from ethnic Albanian rebels. The rebels said Macedonian police had launched an unprovoked attack using local people as human shields. Government spokesmen who arrived to reassure residents there was no cause for alarm were trapped by the crossfire.

On Thursday, Nato said Serbian forces will be allowed into a buffer zone along the Kosovo boundary created at the end of the 1999 air war, occupied by an apparently separate group of Albanian guerrillas. Those rebels yesterday launched a mortar and machine-gun attack on the village of Lucane, at the Serbian frontline. One Serbian policeman died, and three were wounded.

This week, American K-For troops forced 200 National Liberation Army rebels out of Tanusevci, on the Kosovo-Macedonia border. A few rebels held by the Americans are at K-For bases. Some rebels say if their comrades are extradited to Macedonia, K-For troops will become legitimate targets. But by allowing most of the rebels to escape, K-For seems only to have succeeded in sending a meteor plunging deeper into Macedonia, spreading chaos in its fiery wake.

Rebels crossed into Macedonia from Kosovo over- night. A large group loaded ammunition and supplies, including a case of cigarettes, on two mules and set off. The walk took many hours on steep terrain. At one point the sound of K-For surveillance helicopters sent the men scattering for cover.

The group slipped through Macedonian lines amid heavy incoming fire, the air lit with tracers. They arrived at rebel headquarters in the midst of a battle, lit by flashes from heavy weapons. The ethnic Albanians said they were using 120mm mortars and the Macedonians had artillery. One rebel was killed overnight, and they said six Macedonians died.

The rebel leaders said their volunteers were almost all ethnic Albanians from Macedonia, based in neighbouring Kosovo because they feared Macedonian police would arrest them.

A senior rebel commander, masked to hide his identity from Macedonian security forces, said his men are waging a war of self-defence after years of oppression by Slav Macedonians. They say they are willing to open peace talks and discuss new political arrangements in Macedonia. But for now, as the violence spreads like wildfire, there is no end in sight.

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