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Macedonia: Tension Mounts With Approaching Ultimatum Deadline

Skopje, 21 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian officials say the northwestern town of Tetovo today was calm but tense after government forces told ethnic Albanian fighters to withdraw, surrender, or face an onslaught starting at midnight. Our correspondent in Skopje quotes Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski as saying the government has received no official reaction from the ethnic Albanians since issuing the ultimatum late yesterday.

Pendarovski predicted a "harsh battle" lasting "months" with "many casualties on both sides" if the rebels ignore the ultimatum.

In New York, the UN Security Council was debating a resolution that would condemn the violence. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who is on a Balkans tour, called for stronger language in the resolution. Ivanov said the West has helped fuel the conflict in Macedonia by being too tolerant of the rebels.

The ethnic Albanian fighters demand to be recognized as partners in talks aimed at partitioning Macedonia and creating a federation that would grant an autonomous region for ethnic Albanians.

As for the local population, Macedonian Red Cross officials say they have registered 11,083 internally displaced people since this morning, primarily from Tetovo district and the Skopje Black Mountains north of the capital. Seven thousand of them have found shelter in Skopje.

Red Cross officials told our correspondent in Skopje they are not keeping statistics on ethnicity but that it is their understanding that a large number are coming from areas where Slavic Macedonians live.

Yesterday, the Red Cross started distributing food, blankets, mattresses, and hygienic packets containing toothbrush, tooth paste, and soap.

The UN estimates Macedonia is still sheltering some 15,000 refugees from Kosovo, mainly Roma and members of mixed marriages, who arrived nearly two years ago.

(For a detailed analysis on the situation in Macedonia please read Macedonia: Albanian Rebels Flex Muscles by Jolyon Naegele in our Weekday Magazine)