Macedonian police move in to hills to flush out Albanian rebels

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The Independent Online

Police armed for combat moved into the hills above Tetovo today in the start of a government push to cleanse them of ethnic Albanian rebels and sent the insurgents retreating.

Police armed for combat moved into the hills above Tetovo today in the start of a government push to cleanse them of ethnic Albanian rebels and sent the insurgents retreating.

The police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said dozens of "terrorists" were arrested in the "search and sweep operation." Police met no resistance, he said. Shortly after the offensive began the boom or artillery or mortars was heard, shattering a more than 24-hour period of calm.

There was no rebel comment on the police claim that the insurgents were fleeing without a fight. But the scene behind insurgent lines remained the same as before the offensive began - fortifications and road blocks in place and no signs of mass retreat by the insurgents.

The official said that security forces moved past empty trenches and machine-gun positions and seized a large quantity of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds, hand grenades, explosives and ammunition.

He said the militants were throwing away their uniforms and attempting to pull back to Kosovo in civilian clothes.

There were reports of violence elsewhere. Police reported one officer wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade just outside Skopje - the second incident targeting a policeman in or near the capital in 24 hours.

The police move into the hills began a few hours after the president ignored the insurgents' offer of a cease-fire and vowed to "neutralize and eliminate" them.

"It is necessary that the Macedonian army take control of the Macedonian side of the border," said President Boris Trajkovski, moments before the end of a midnight government deadline to the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender or leave Macedonia. Negotiations for a peaceful settlement were still possible, he said, but only through parliament and other established institutions, and not directly with the rebels.

Trajkovski said the Democratic Prosperity Party, one of two ethnic Albanian parties in the opposition, "showed some reserve" to the government's hard-line stance. He did not elaborate.

The European Union expressed support for the government position.

"The message from the West is very clear - the extremist groups must lay down their weapons," said Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, in Skopje on behalf of the European Union. She offered EU support for the government and said only "democratically elected" leaders should be involved in negotiations on ending the crisis.

The rebels say they are a homegrown movement fighting for greater rights in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are outnumbered by Slavs three to one. But the government claims they are linked to fighters across the border in Kosovo and aim to break off northern Macedonia to form an independent ethnic Albanian state.

Although ethnic relations with the majority Slavs have been relatively trouble-free, substantial numbers of the ethnic Albanian minority feel they are being treated as second-class citizens. The struggle appears to have radicalized a large segment of Macedonian Albanians.

In a last-minute concession, the rebels had declared a cease-fire and called anew for talks to peacefully end the conflict.

"We, the general staff of the National Liberation Army, announce a unilateral cease fire and we open the road for dialogue so heads can cool down and to find the best solution," Ali Ahmeti, the political head of the NLA, said in a taped television broadcast in neighbouring Kosovo.

He said the cease-fire was open-ended, but warned that in case of attack the more than four-week struggle would continue.

"In case our positions are threatened by our opponents, then all our forces will be on the move and the conflict would widen," he said. "We have repeated constantly and will repeat again that we are for dialogue. We are not for a war that would create rivers of blood between two nations, because the reason for dialogue would be lost in that case."

The government ignored the offer.

In a resolution adopted yesterday, the UN Security Council strongly condemned the "terrorist" violence and asked NATO to do more to prevent ethnic Albanian rebels from smuggling weapons across the border from Kosovo.

A Macedonian soldier was wounded yesterday from shots fired from the Kosovo side of the border, the Macedonian government said. Earlier in the day, in a sign that the conflict could spill over to the Macedonian capital, a police officer was shot and killed when a group of policemen were attacked in the Albanian quarter of Skopje.

As night fell, those who could sought out basements for shelter in hillside villages close to rebel positions above Tetovo. In Shipkovica, more than 60 people crowded one cellar no larger than 24 square metres, sitting on rugs and carpets.

Zharije Quiarmi, her belly swollen with the child she was expecting in three weeks, said: "We are expecting the worst. I really hope my baby is not born into a war."

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