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Macedonia: Government Preparing 'Final Operation'

Tetovo, 20 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Macedonian government says it is preparing what it is calling the "final operation" to clear ethnic Albanian fighters from the hills around Tetovo. A government spokesman (Antonio Milosovski) told news agencies that six tanks, four armored personnel carriers, and several trucks carrying soldiers have been sent to the mainly ethnic Albanian city, site of heavy fighting for the past six days. He said the operation will begin once commanders decide there is minimum risk of loss of life.

The announcement comes after NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said the alliance will send more troops to the Macedonian border with Kosovo in order to cut supplies to the rebels fighting Macedonian forces. Robertson was speaking after meeting Macedonian Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim, who said once NATO cut supply lines to the rebels, Macedonian forces will be able to fend for themselves.

Macedonian troops today blasted two houses close to the Tetovo city football stadium with heavy artillery and machine gun fire. But there was no immediate sign of the announced major assault by government forces on the suspected hillside positions of ethnic Albanian rebels above Tetovo.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the situation was "spiraling out of control" and said he would back international military action in Macedonia. But Robertson reiterated NATO has no mandate to operate inside Macedonia.