Tensions are high in Macedonia after government forces began a new offensive yesterday against ethnic Albanian fighters. The offensive follows the killing in recent days of some 10 Macedonian soldiers and police officers. As RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports, the government is now saying it will put down the insurgency once and for all.
Prague, 4 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian forces have begun the second day of an offensive against ethnic Albanian rebels in the country's north.
Heavy artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire were reported around the village of Vakcince. Two other villages southeast of Vakcince -- Lipkovo and Slupcane -- were reportedly also hit by shelling.
Vakcince now appears to be surrounded by Macedonian security forces. Before the shelling began, a convoy carrying some 200 special police troops was seen entering the neighboring town of Kumanovo.
Macedonian forces began their offensive against suspected ethnic Albanian fighters' positions in the north yesterday after the rebels killed two Macedonian soldiers. Before the assault began yesterday, the government ordered local people to evacuate the area around Kumanovo. There has been no official word on casualties.
Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov described the actions:
"At eight o'clock the Macedonian army resumed actions started yesterday to destroy the Albanian terrorists in the region around Kumanovo, in several villages around the Kumanovo region."
The increased tensions began last weekend when four Macedonian soldiers and four police officers were killed by rebel forces. Their deaths triggered riots by Macedonian Slavs against ethnic Albanian civilians in the southwestern city of Bitola. Since Monday's funeral for the soldiers, more than 50 Albanian-owned shops have been destroyed in Bitola. Late Tuesday, masked assailants broke into an ethnic Albanian restaurant near Skopje and killed its owner.
A commander in the National Liberation Army guerrilla group, known by the acronym UCK, confirmed his forces had opened fire on an approaching column of armored personnel carriers in Vakcince early today.
A rebel commander calling himself Sokoli said by telephone from the area today: "Our soldiers opened fire because we could not know their intentions." He said his men had reported killing five soldiers and taking one prisoner.
The rebels say they are fighting for equal rights for Macedonia's substantial ethnic Albanian minority, which makes up around one-third of the country's population of 2 million people. The UCK's actions have been condemned by the West.
Harald Schenker, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Macedonia, says that despite the increased tensions, the country has yet to reach a "point of no return:"
"There are certainly forces who are interested in destabilizing the country, and they are doing it in a quite obvious way. But I still think there is space for political maneuvering, and the point of no return is still far away."
Schenker says rebels in Macedonia are being helped by those in Kosovo.
"There is obviously some kind of a logistical base in Kosovo, and certainly some of the activities are connected to the other side of the border."
Schenker says there is reason to hope the violence will be stopped. But he cautions that the cross-border assistance from rebels in Kosovo must first be contained.