Rebels hold firm as troops launch new blitz

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The Independent Online

The Macedonian paramilitary policemen were in disarray as they came running down to the base of the hill overlooking Tetovo.

The Macedonian paramilitary policemen were in disarray as they came running down to the base of the hill overlooking Tetovo.

The long-promised assault on the ethnic Albanian guerrillas above Tetovo, aimed at ending a rebellion which has threatened to plunge the Balkans into a new war, did not appear to be going all the government's way.

Two men flung themselves behind a heap of builders' gravel and fired wildly up the hill while more than a dozen comrades rushed past, seeking better cover from the snipers.

Arsim, a 25-year-old Albanian student who was watching the disorderly retreat, was not surprised. "When they went up the hill early this morning, we could hear their commander screaming at them that they didn't have the guts," he said.

A few moments beforehand, a military ambulance had come racing down the street, its blue light flashing, but we did not see why it had been summoned. Another group of four men came down the hill, in better order this time, followed - to muted jeers from the Albanian onlookers - by three armoured vehicles.

The attack began at dawn with a two-hour barrage of tank shells, Katyusha rockets, mortars and machine-gun fire. A column of tanks and armoured vehicles roared through Tetovo, ploughing up the main street and demolishing a lamp standard in the central square in their hasteto get to the hills. But now it was noon, and there was stillresistance only yards from the edge of town.

We were crouched at the end of Murat Baftijari, a street in the old Albanian quarter of Tetovo adjoining the road leading to the hills. A couple of streets higher up, two buildings were burning fiercely -Arsim said one was a home and the other a furniture workshop. Just around the corner there was a deafening firefight between a paramilitary post, which was blazing away with machine-guns and automatic rifles, and the snipers above.

What made everyone in the street cringe, however, was the occasional burst from a Macedonian sniper. The bullets from his long-barrelled rifle made a loud ripping sound and came uncomfortably close. Risking a quick look around the corner, I saw the sniper on top of an apartment building, running from one position to another.

In a basement near by, 50 women and children have been sheltering every night since the fighting around Tetovo began more than 10 days ago. With daylight most were able to return to their homes, but it was too dangerous for Nexhibe Ademi, 32, and Gezime Islami, 43, both wearing traditional headscarves, who were helping to look after about 10 of the youngest children.

Ms Ademi said: "When the shooting first started we told them it was just a big wedding party, but after a week they began saying 'This party's taking an awfully long time'. Some of them are starting to get traumatised."

Like nearly every other Albanian in Tetovo, however, they insisted on their rights.

"We don't want war, but we support the boys up the hill," said Ms Islami. "Without this, our children will have no right to go to school or earn a living in Macedonia."

As they spoke the Macedonian government was deploying more firepower than ever in its efforts to crush the insurgency.

Returning to central Tetovo to reach the old Macedonian quarter of Koltuk, we saw a helicopter gunship firing rockets at another hillside.

Fires were burning all along the range of hills which encircles the town, some of them in areas which had remained untouched until yesterday, such as the village of Gajre, only a mile or two from Tetovo but several hundred feet higher.

Koltuk lies at the base of the steepest hill overlooking Tetovo, topped by an old Turkish fort which has been pounded ceaselessly since it was seized by the rebel National Liberation Army. "It's a great victory," said a Macedonian man standing at the door of his home. "They've driven them back to Kosovo. For 10 days we couldn't get out of our houses because of them."

But he was the only person we encountered on the steep climb through cobbled lanes of half-timbered houses to Gotse Delchev Street, named after a Slavonic hero. Miroslav Simovski, a student aged 20, explained why. "There's still a sniper up there taking pot-shots at people," he said.

The police had put a barrier across the street warning people to go no further. Underlining the danger, there was a trail of blood from the house across the road, where two mortar bombs wounded four people on Saturday.

Although the assault had visibly lifted the mood of Miroslav and his friends, he was less triumphalist than his neighbour. "If they can push the terrorists out, I believe things can return to normal within months," he said.

"Tetovo was peaceful before, and we got on well withthe Albanians."

But, added Miroslav: "It isn't over yet." The words were no sooner out of his mouth than there was another huge explosion high above.