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Macedonia: Troops Step Up Offensive Against Ethnic Albanian Fighters

Backed by helicopter gunships and tanks, Macedonian security forces have stepped up their offensive against ethnic Albanian fighters in northern villages, where thousands of civilians remain cut off from the rest of the country. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports.

Prague, 22 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian troops exchanged fire with ethnic Albanian rebels on a mountain peak earlier today. The renewed fighting came after an army spokesman said troops, backed by tanks, had made gains yesterday in the northern village of Opae.

The spokesman, Colonel Blagoja Markovski, told reporters that the army had responded today to advances by ethnic Albanian fighters on Mount Popova Sapka, above the northwestern city of Tetovo. Markovski also said that a major position and an ammunition depot held by the fighters had been destroyed in clashes yesterday.

Artillery fire was reported as well in the village of Orizare. The Albanian militants unleashed sniper and machine-gun fire from the nearby villages of Slupcane and Vaksince. The army then shelled Vaksince, hitting some houses in the village.

Later today, Defense Ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov said the army was monitoring the situation in northern Macedonia and remained on alert.

"After 12 midnight and during the morning hours, there was some gunfire. The population is very worried about this. But now everything is normal and people can come and go."

Besieged villagers say the offensive has destroyed homes and livestock. Arif Isufi, a resident of Orizare, called yesterday's offensive one of the hardest days in recent weeks.

"Five houses were shelled. There were many wounded civilians. Many houses were destroyed and animals were also killed. Yesterday was the most difficult day."

On 18 May, the government attempted to extend a 24-hour cease-fire indefinitely. But before the end of the day, security forces renewed their shelling of militant positions, saying the Albanian fighters had sought to take military advantage of the lull in fighting.

The villages where the fighters are based are still populated by some 10,000 civilians. So far, many have refused to leave their homes. But Brenda Pearson, a Macedonian-affairs analyst with the London-based International Crisis Group, says the government is likely to try to evacuate the villages:

"My sense is that [the government] will do everything they can to evacuate the villages. But they have the capacity to mitigate targeted strikes. They're not going to go and bomb all the villages indiscriminately. The number of Albanian rebels in the villages is a relatively small number."

Pearson says that while the conflict has not yet spread to the entire country, there is increasing polarization in Macedonia.

"The polarization is deepening as the days go by. What's happening is not just a taking sides against Albanians and Macedonians within the country. The polarization is also about how to deal with the rebels."

Pearson says that the conflict will spread to the rest of the country unless Macedonia's new government of national unity works out an acceptable political compromise. The compromise, she says, must satisfy ethnic Albanian demands for greater equality -- and thereby undermine the militants' call to arms.