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Macedonia: Forces Poised To Continue Offensive Near Tetovo

Sipkovica, Macedonia; 26 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian armed forces are today (Monday) poised to continue an offensive to crush ethnic Albanian fighters in the hills above the northwestern city of Tetovo.

The assault began early yesterday (Sunday) morning with an intensive three-hour artillery barrage of Albanian insurgent positions together with four attack helicopters firing missiles. Convoys of armored personnel carriers moved up roads leading from Tetovo to the nearest insurgent positions at the villages of Lavce and Gajre.

There was fierce fighting, much of it at close quarters, throughout the day at both places. The vastly outnumbered and outgunned fighters of the National Liberation Army, or UCK, fought back with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Eight government armored personnel carriers and two tanks led the way into Gajre with infantry following behind. The armored vehicles raked the buildings along the village's main street with heavy machine-gun fire, setting afire many houses.

By early afternoon the village of Gajre seemed to have been abandoned by the Albanian fighters, and frightened villagers came out of cellars and tried to rescue farm animals and possessions from the burning buildings.

But the insurgents put up stiffer resistance at Lavce, which is 3.5 kilometers from the UCK headquarters in the village of Selce. Both sides occupied different parts of Lavce.

Terrified villagers in another front-line village, Sipkovica, watched as government armor mustered on the road below them. The village was shelled early in the day and several people were injured. The road in one place was spattered with blood.

Nayo Kadjra -- a Sipkovica native who now lives in London but returned last week to visit his family -- told our correspondent: "We think that if the government troops come here they will destroy the entire village, which is 100 percent ethnic Albanian and has a reputation for political activism."

Kadjra said most of the UCK fighters had left Sipkovica to defend their positions in Lavce and Selce across the valley. He said his village was defenseless, with women and children crowded into basements and fearful of what awaited them.

Government armor and troops gathered on the road about two miles below the village and were poised to move in, probably today.

Kadjra said: "People thought about escaping over the mountains to Kosovo but there are too many elderly people, sick, and young. We have all decided to let God decide our fate and if we must die, we will die together."

Inside Tetovo itself, heavily armed special police units occupied positions in the city's old Turkish quarter, which faces the hillside UCK positions. The quarter is also one of the areas the authorities fear the insurgents and their sympathizers could try to occupy.

Wearing blue flak jackets and carrying Kalashnikov automatic rifles, one of the police units took over the Arabat Hotel in the quarter. The police aimed their fire up into the hills and unleashed a hail of artillery and multiple-rocket-launcher fire from positions near the hotel.

UCK fighters fired machine guns at the hotel and pinned down another police unit in a Muslim cemetery in front of the hotel.

No police were wounded but it was clear that they were not used to fighting. Many of them panicked and fired their weapons wildly in all directions. Some of the police at the hotel opened fire on a taxi driving by, riddling it with machine-gun bullets. Three men and a woman inside the car, all Albanian civilians who had been trying to flee the fighting, were wounded -- a woman shot in the head -- and taken to hospital in the capital Skopje, 40 kms east of Tetovo.

Last night (Sunday), as darkness fell, the fighting died down and the army used buses to shuttle reinforcements into Gajre for the renewed fighting expected today. Around Lavce both sides dug in for the night.

The government did not release casualty figures. But the main hospital in Skopje yesterday said it had received five ambulance-loads of wounded from the fighting. The hospital would not disclose exactly how many people were hurt.