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Macedonia: Army Launches Fresh Attack On Rebels

Lipkovo, 28 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian forces today launched another attack on ethnic Albanian rebels in several places in the country.

Tanks, armored-personnel carriers, artillery, and attack helicopters struck out from the capital, Skopje, and the village of Lipkovo, some 20 kilometers northeast of Skopje.

The forces from the capital joined others which had surrounded ethnic Albanian fighters at the village of Gracani, 10 kilometers northwest of Skopje for a week.

Those from Lipkovo attacked two rebel positions at the nearby villages of Brest and Gosince.

Government spokesman Antonio Milososki said: "This is our final operation to establish control of this stretch of land. We want to create conditions for the continuation of political dialogue."

But some ethnic-Albanian political leaders condemned the attack, which comes three days after a government offensive to drive rebels from hillside positions around the city of Tetovo. There government security forces had battled against ethnic Albanian fighters for 11 days before launching an attack. The rebels withdrew from the area.

Some members of the ethnic Albanian political party, the Albanian Democratic Party, which is a member of the country's coalition government, criticized the new offensive. One member, Shefni Squeptiri, resigned his seat in parliament.

Milososki said he did not know how long the military operation would last. He said: "I hope the coalition government survives this military action. It would be very bad for the country if it did not."

Lipkovo and the surrounding villages are populated largely by ethnic Albanians. Tension had been growing in Lipkovo since last Sunday when ethnic Albanian fighters kidnapped two Macedonian troops guarding a dam at the southern end of the nearby Lipkovsko lake. The two were later released unharmed.

A Macedonian special police unit was today blocking the road that runs past the dam toward the villages and barring all reporters from proceeding further.

Our correspondent heard heavy shelling from the direction of Brest and Gosince and two Soviet-manufactured T-54 tanks and armored-personnel carriers move toward the battle zone and saw a Soviet-made Mi-24 helicopter swoop in and fire missiles into the area.

One Albanian man from Lipkovo, who did not want to be named, said: "The Macedonian army gathered its forces here last night (27 March). There were more than 10 tanks and armored personnel carriers and about 300 troops. The fighting began this morning around 0500 (local time).

The government would not give details of its forces involved in the fighting or what, if any, casualties had been sustained by either side.