Macedonian tanks shell Tetovo guerrillas

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The Independent Online

Tanks shelled the hills around Macedonia's second city yesterday in a savage counter-offensive that has seen the most serious fighting yet between the country's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. It is feared the escalating violence could soon trigger a full-scale civil war.

Tanks shelled the hills around Macedonia's second city yesterday in a savage counter-offensive that has seen the most serious fighting yet between the country's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. It is feared the escalating violence could soon trigger a full-scale civil war.

A series of blasts was clearly visible in the hills above Tetovo as terrified residents scurried for cover below. The hills had been occupied by Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA-UCK) for the past week. The Macedonian army was firing indiscriminately and several of the great columns of smoke rising came from civilian houses. It was not clear if they had been occupied.

A short time after the start of the government offensive, the Macedonian army issued an ultimatum, giving "the terrorists" 24 hours to cease hostilities and surrender, or leave Macedonia. "After this deadline, Macedonian security forces will continue using all its means against positions of terrorists until they are completely destroyed," it said.

It was the first time that tanks had been used here. The shells were being fired so close to the city you could feel the air slapping off the buildings from the blast.

The Macedonian onslaught began at 4.00pm just hours after the rebels offered peace talks. The guerrillas had warned that their attacks would continue if the Macedonian government did not respond to their offer. The government's response was the huge flames leaping from the crown of Baltepe hill and the shattering explosions that rebounded off the rooftops of Tetovo.

In the town below, cars raced along the streets as some of the few remaining residents fled. From the deserted children's playground a row of soldiers fired mortars up into the hills as the blue and white swings swayed in the breeze beside them. Petrified conscript soldiers patrolled the city streets, presumably in case any of the rebels made it down into the town. There has so far been no sign of civil unrest in the town.

There was no word on casualties last night but the risk to civilians was high. The hills around Tetovo are dotted with houses and it is not clear if they had all been evacuated. "Firing indiscriminately like this would not be acceptable for a Nato army,'' said Captain Hans Gunter Benders, of the German army, watching the firefight from a base just miles away where German troops from the K-For peace-keeping force in Kosovo are based. Yet Nato, the United States and the European Union have all pledged their support to the Macedonian government for fear that the rebels are about to spark a new war in the Balkans.

The guerrillas have been accused of attempting to break up Macedonia and unite areas with a large Albanian population to a "greater Kosovo'' but they insist that they are fighting for improved rights for Albanians, who make up at least a quarter of Macedonia's population. The rebels have widespread support in the Albanian community. Nato troops such as Captain Benders may be sucked into the conflict. There are already growing calls for Nato to intervene. But so far the alliance has - at least publicly - been reluctant.

The Macedonian army is using antique Russian-made T55 and T62 tanks that were designed in the 1940s. Soldiers dressed in vests were drinking beer at their positions behind armoured troop carriers. The tiny army is desperately ill-equipped and under-manned and has no airforce capable of supporting the assault. Captain Benders said the saturation of the hills with shells could be used as cover to mount an infantry assault on the rebels. The Macedonian government has been promising this for the last few days but there has been no sign of soldiers storming the hills. As night fell, German soldiers watching the battle with night-vision binoculars said the guerrillas were returning fire only with rifles and appeared to be digging in to their positions.

The onslaught came suddenly after a day of relative calm in Tesovo, where fighting between security forces and the guerrillas has now been going on for a week. Just hours before the army started shelling, the rebels had called for talks with the government .

"We are determined to realise our demands, and urge Macedonian authorities and non-government figures to make public as soon as possible if they want this to be resolved peacefully or not," the rebels said in a communiqué.

"Macedonia's ignorant view and hypocritical disrespect of the Albanian demands and patience has surpassed all limits," the statement - translated into English - added. "We urge the international community to recognise our demands - which are for peace, not for war."

"Our people have for decades been insulted, discriminated against and banned from all civilization traditions in Macedonia. These are the main reasons that forced the Albanians to take up weapons and fight for their rights," it went on.

It was signed "National Liberation Army - Tetovo branch," and ended with a warning that if talks were rejected, "We will bear no responsibility for the future chain of events."

Rejecting the guerrillas' offer, the Macedonian President, Boris Trajkovski, said: "There will be no negotiations." He accused the rebels of "ethnic extremism".

But by responding with a show of firepower, the government appears only to have made the risk of civil war greater. The rebels say they are fighting for improved minority rights for Albanians, who make up at least a quarter of Macedonia's population. There is little sign of overt persecution but there is great resentment among the Albanian community at what they say is general discrimination against them in Macedonia.

The Macedonian army had begun moving at least 10 tanks, with hundreds of troops and artillery, to Tetovo on Monday as the authorities warned that they were preparing for a final push against the rebels.

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