Macedonia vows to declare a state of war on rebels

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Macedonia's Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, called for a state of war to be declared against Albanian rebels after five Macedonian soldiers were killed in fighting yesterday.

"A strong military response is the only way to achieve peace", Mr Georgievski's spokesman said after the rebels ambushed and killed five soldiers in the village of Gajre, in mountains near the city of Tetovo. However, the European Union urged the Macedonian government not to declare war. It fears a declaration of war would force Albanian parties to leave the fragile emergency coalition government and push the country towards all-out civil war.

There were immediate fears of civil unrest yesterday. The death toll in yesterday's renewed fighting was the highest among Macedonian forces since eight soldiers were killed in April. Then, an angry mob went on the rampage in the southern city of Bitola, setting Albanian homes alight. Mr Georgievski wanted to declare a state of war in April, but backed down under pressure from the EU and Nato.

The situation in the north-east of the country, around Kumanovo, is already close to war. There, a series of villages occupied by the rebels come under daily shelling by the Macedonian army, while thousands of civilians shelter in the basements of their houses.

But it is a war the Macedonians look far from winning. They have been shelling the villages for a month, but the rebels show no sign of retreating. Meanwhile, the deaths of civilians in the villages, including children, is hardening public opinion among Albanians, who make up between a quarter and a third of Macedonia's population, just as the deaths of the soldiers are hardening opinion among the Slav majority. Already, Slavs and Albanians will not venture into each other's areas in the capital, Skopje.

A source in the Macedonian government admits that so far the military has been powerless to force the rebels out of the villages. The military's most elite troops ­ its force of about 50 commandoes ­ refused to obey when they were ordered to storm a village, saying they could not complete the mission without heavy casualties.

A declaration of war would allow for a general call-up and enable the president to rule by decree. But it is unclear what else it would do to break the stalemate in the mountains.

A state of war would have to be passed by a two-thirds majority in parliament, but it remains to be seen whether it will get that far. It also looks as though Mr Georgievski is becoming increasingly unpredictable under pressure. Only last week, he said that the government would have to agree to the rebels' main demands and amend the constitution to recognise Albanians as a constituent nation, not a minority.

The Skopje government is said to be desperately riven, not only between Macedonian and Albanian factions, but also between individual Slav parties. Sources say that Mr Georgievski is not speaking to Arben Xhaferi, the most influential of the moderate Albanian leaders, whose involvement is believed to be essential if the crisis is to be resolved.