Tetovo, Macedonia; 26 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian security forces yesterday launched a full-scale military offensive against ethnic Albanian fighters in the hills overlooking the western Macedonian city of Tetovo.
The Defense Ministry says the thrust is "one of the last phases of an operation... for the complete expulsion of terrorists from Macedonian territory."
The attack began at dawn with a massive artillery and rocket barrage that focused on an Ottoman-era hilltop kale, or fortress, from where the rebels have been shooting for 11 days. The barrage was also focused on several villages controlled by the militants to the west of Tetovo. At times more than 30 shells a minute were landing on the Kale hill and in and around the villages of Selce and Sipkovica.
Although the ethnic Albanians are entrenched in the wooded hills and control much of the high ground around Tetovo, government artillery has been set up at the Popova Capka ski resort and military base due west of Tetovo.
The army has been using helicopters to spot targets for the Macedonian artillery at Popova Capka, which at an altitude of some 1,800 meters commands sweeping views of the Sar mountain range and its deep, Albanian-inhabited valleys.
After the barrage continued for three hours yesterday morning, the Macedonian army launched a ground assault up the hills from a Muslim cemetery on the southwestern edge of Tetovo. The assault was led by two Soviet-built tanks and several armored personnel carriers with infantry marching close behind.
The tanks fired at several ethnic-Albanian homes on a hillside that is visible from the city center, setting them ablaze.
By noon, the government assault had reached the village of Gajre -- which overlooks Tetovo from a winding road that runs on to insurgency strongholds higher in the mountains.
The official government news agency MIA, quoting police, said the rebels destroyed one armored personnel carrier with grenades but caused no injuries to police or soldiers.
A fierce gun battle then raged at Gajre before some 250 government troops, backed by two T55 tanks and more than a dozen armored personnel carriers, took control of the village and continued their drive further west toward Sipkovica.
Sipkovica, six kilometers northwest of Tetovo, is an exclusively ethnically Albanian community of more than 2,500 residents that stretches up a mountain slope from an altitude of 1,000 meters to 1,150 meters.
Colonel Blagoja Markovski told reporters in Skopje the rebels have already withdrawn from at least three villages close to Tetovo: Lavce, Selce, and Drenok.
Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov described yesterday's ground assault as part of a final drive to push the ethnic Albanian militants out of Macedonian territory. He insists Macedonian forces are after "only legitimate targets," including command posts and sniper nests.
Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski briefly visited the security forces in Tetovo this afternoon and described the offense as a "successful...thrust to clear the terrain of terrorists."
Similarly, National Security Adviser Nikola Dimitrov described the offensive as "a fight against terrorists, not against any single ethnic community." In his words: "we undertook this action because the long-term existence of terrorism here endangers the pillars of Macedonia's multiethnicity."
The government says the militants are being led and supplied by ethnic Albanian extremists in Serbia's UN-administered Kosovo province in a bid to create a Greater Albania.
But commanders of the ethnic Albanian militants have told RFE/RL that 80 percent of their fighters are ethnic Albanians from Macedonia. They say they are fighting in order to establish equal rights for the ethnic Albanian minority in Macedonia -- which constitutes up to one-third of the country's population.
RFE/RL's correspondent in Tetovo reports some scattered house-to-house fighting within Tetovo's ethnic Albanian neighborhoods. But most residents in those neighborhoods are either staying indoors or have already fled the area. A few families could be seen fleeing through the muddy streets of the outskirts early yesterday.
Our correspondent also watched Interior Ministry police and army troops taking up strategic positions across an ethnic Albanian neighborhood on the southwest side of the mostly ethnic-Albanian city early yesterday. The army also has positioned tanks in Tetovo's central square.
One key observation point for the government forces is an old Islamic prayer and study center known as Teke. It is near the cemetery where yesterday's assault on the heights was launched. Part of the Teke has been converted to a state-run hotel that currently houses many journalists. But the graves of Muslims priests still receive regular visits by ethnic Albanians.
Our correspondent says government troops wounded three ethnic Albanian civilians in a hail of gunfire shortly before noon yesterday as they arrived by taxi at the gates of the Teke in a taxi. The injured included an elderly woman. All were taken to a city hospital in an ambulance. The hospital director says two other ethnic Albanian civilians and one police officer have been admitted with injuries. The injuries suffered by the policeman and one of the civilians was serious enough to warrant evacuation to Skopje for treatment.
In Berlin, meanwhile, a German Defense Ministry spokeswoman says 130 artillery soldiers arrived in the Kosovo town of Prizren last night to be deployed on Kosovo's border with Macedonia. She says no decision has been made on when to deploy some 100 paratroopers to defend more than 1,000 German soldiers based in Macedonia, mainly near Tetovo.
The defense ministers of Greece and Bulgaria, meeting in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, last night said their two countries want to support Macedonia's sovereignty and territorial integrity "actively and dynamically," in cooperation with the EU and UN. They stressed Macedonia's problems can only solved by political means.
(Jolyon Naegele contributed to this report.)