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Macedonia: Government Offensive Calms Fighting

Tetovo, Macedonia; 26 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tetovo was quiet early today after government forces yesterday launched an offensive against ethnic Albanian fighters holed up in the hills surrounding this northwestern Macedonian city. An army spokesman late last night said the army had taken six villages occupied by the fighters. The spokesman also said troops had surrounded the medieval fortress of Kale overlooking the town. Our correspondent saw government armored personnel carriers and tanks yesterday move into one of the rebel-held villages, Gajre. Troops later appeared also to have moved into two other rebel strongholds, Lavce and Selce. Our correspondent says the ethnic Albanian fighters most likely withdrew from the villages after putting up stiff resistance earlier in the day.

A government spokesman said there were no government casualties in the offensive but that two soldiers and a policeman were slightly wounded. Our correspondent says four civilians were also wounded when police opened fire on a taxi in which they were trying to flee the fighting.

A report from Skopje says the head of NATO and the European Union's foreign policy chief go to Skopje today to meet with top Macedonian officials on the fighting with ethnic Albanian militants.

NATO's George Robertson and the EU's Javier Solana, respectively, are expected to express support for Macedonia's government. But they will urge President Boris Trajkovski and the country's leaders to use moderation and restraint in dealing with the militants.

Solana and Robertson also are scheduled to meet representatives of the Albanian minority.

Robertson is expected to encourage Trajkovski to enter negotiations with the fighters to try and put an end to the clashes.

A spokeswoman for Solana says he will appeal for moderation in the government's policy so Macedonia's Albanians do not take sides with the militants.

The international community has expressed concern that excessive force by Macedonian troops will bolster support for the rebels' cause.