Macedonia on the brink of civil war

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The Independent Online

Ethnic Albanian militants fought fierce gun battles against government forces in Macedonia's second-largest city yesterday, thrusting the country back to the brink of civil war just days after the collapse of high-level peace talks.

Ethnic Albanian militants fought fierce gun battles against government forces in Macedonia's second-largest city yesterday, thrusting the country back to the brink of civil war just days after the collapse of high-level peace talks.

A senior police official in Tetovo said the rebels had taken the city's football stadium and were within 50 metresof government troops trying to keep them from the city centre.

A government spokesman, Antonio Milososki, said an 11-year-old girl was killed and six members of the Macedonian security forces were wounded. At least nine civilians and five policemen were wounded, one of them seriously, Macedonian television reported. It said a soldier was killed yesterday in a separate clash near Mavrovo, about 45 miles south-west of the capital, Skopje.

It was by far the most serious violation of a ceasefire brokered by Nato and the European Union that took effect on 5 July.

The Defence Minister, Vlado Buckovski, said: "The situation in Tetovo is critical, and if the terrorists do not retreat to their previous positions ... we will have no other option but to dislodge them with our offensive.We demand that Nato secure the ceasefire, because Nato and the international community provided us with guarantees for the ceasefire."

Rebels and army troops traded infantry fire, coupled with exchanges of grenades and bursts of machine-gun fire. Troops also fired howitzer shells and mortar bombs at rebel positions; the rebels replied with mortar fire.Scores of cars packed mostly with women, children and elderly residents were seen fleeing Tetovo in the direction of Skopje. But although central Tetovo was tense, shops and cafés remained open on the outskirts of the city.

Murtezan Ismaili, the Mayor of Tetovo, said: "There's ongoing shooting with very high intensity. One bullet hit my office, right next to my secretary. She's not injured." A rebel commander from Tetovo, said: "We were provoked by Macedonian forces. We're fighting back."

Mr Milososki said: "Events in Tetovo are endangering political dialogue. While we were preparing for peace and dialogue, Albanians were preparing for war." But Demush Bajrami, a member of parliament from the Democratic Party of Albanians, accused the Macedonians of "deliberately provoking us in order to gain more time and to push for war".

Macedonia's President, Boris Trajkovski, met James Pardew, the US special envoy for the Balkans, and his French counterpart, Francois Leotard, yesterday to "discuss the agenda and modalities of future talks", a senior Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity, said.

In a statement Mr Pardew and Mr Leotard – who also met the Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, and the leaders of the two main ethnic Albanian political parties – urged those responsible for the violence to respect the ceasefire.

They said: "Violence is unacceptable and does nothing to further the cause of the people in this region. It could only undermine the peace process while the political talks are still ongoing.&quot

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