Government campaign intensifies as rebel support widens

NATO issues warning to rebels
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The Independent Online

The sound of heavy artillery fire mixed with the chants of churchgoers praying for peace today as government forces pounded hills held by rebels seeking to expand their struggle for more ethnic Albanian rights in Macedonia.

The sound of heavy artillery fire mixed with the chants of churchgoers praying for peace today as government forces pounded hills held by rebels seeking to expand their struggle for more ethnic Albanian rights in Macedonia.

Macedonian gunners unleashed sustained artillery and mortar strikes overnight and into today, targeting the wooded foothills where the rebels have been hiding and returning fire on Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city. At midmorning, government forces started firing large caliber mortars, sending 120-mm rounds behind a mountain ridge in an attempt to reach insurgent positions further back.

Reacting to gunfire directed on Friday at a Tetovo base used by German members of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in neighboring Kosovo, Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu, the force commander, said, "we will respond with determination to any threat." German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in Berlin his government "sharply condemns" the insurgency.

Despite the ferocity of the Slav-led government's assault, there was evidence that the insurgents were winning over some ethnic Albanians - although ethnic relations in Macedonia have been relatively trouble free, some of the minority feel they are being treated as second-class citizens.

"I'm ready to fight. We cannot let this chance pass by," said 33-year-old Gani Selman after the rebel National Liberation Army issued a call Saturday for "all able-bodied citizens to take up arms" and for ethnic Albanians in the military and police to switch sides.

Even some highly influential leaders sense that a violent showdown may be the only way to challenge a system they claim fosters discrimination and harassment against ethnic Albanians, who account for at least a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people, most of them Slavs.

"We would welcome international mediation, but I fear we are running out of time," said Fadil Sulejmani, rector of the once-outlawed University of Tetovo, which is widely viewed as a center of resistance to the Macedonian government. "This is becoming a kind of holy war."

A Macedonian Army helicopter transporting police officers crashed Saturday on the slopes north of Tetovo when it hit an antenna near a ski resort, the military said. One person was killed and 15 others injured.

Security forces pummeled the area with artillery, heavy machine guns and mortars. From sandbag bunkers, sharpshooters fired at suspected rebel hideouts. The rebels responded with sporadic automatic gunfire and possibly mortars. Some homes in central Tetovo had been hit by mortar rounds, but it was unclear whether they came from rebel posts.

Hundreds were reported to have fled from Tetovo and Skopje, the capital, among them about 350 Slavic Macedonians who arrived Sunday to southern Serbian areas neighboring Macedonia.

"I can't understand that after living for 33 years in Tetovo together with (ethnic) Albanians, I had to leave," said 33-year-old Snezana Avramovska in Skopje Saturday. She joined other refugees who rallied outside the main government building there to demand that authorities restore full control over the city they had to flee.

For the second day, thousands of protesters demonstrated Sunday in Skopje. Gathering in front of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's office they demanded that government create stability, permitting those who fled to return to their homes.

In Tetovo's Slav neighborhood of Koltuk, about 30 people gathered for Christian Orthodox service at Saint Nicholas church. They held twigs of dried sage during the graceful chants of the Lenten Liturgy, which were drowned out by the sounds of battle less than half a mile away.

"Pray for the Christians of Macedonia and especially here in Tetovo," intoned the priest.

"I don't often go to church," said Dimitri Kolovski, who winced at each blast from the Macedonian gunners. "But how can you not pray at a time like this?"

The rebels said they had killed 11 policemen and wounded 18 others, while suffering no casualties of their own, a claim Macedonian police flatly denied. The rebels, whose insurgency started a month ago in a village on the border with Kosovo, said they were continuing to organize and regroup in other parts of the country.

The rebels insist their battle is not being instigated by the former Kosovo Liberation Army, but the latest uprising shares the aspirations for ethnic Albanian self-determination, if not outright independence.

In a session that ended early Sunday, parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution blaming the crisis on "armed groups of extremists." Of 103 deputies present - including dozens of ethnic Albanians - 97 voted "yes," and six abstained. The resolution also urged NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo to increase efforts to interdict fighters and arms trying to move from there to neighboring Macedonia.