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Macedonia: Protests In Skopje Follow Heavy Fighting

Skopje, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Up to 300 angry, displaced Macedonians, fleeing the worst fighting in the country since March, protested outside parliament in Skopje today, demanding government protection. Some threw stones and tried to charge the entrances. Police pushed them back and called in reinforcements.

The demonstration came one day after ethnic Albanian militants launched an offensive in and around the city of Tetovo to gain more territory, including several ethnic Macedonian villages along the main road from Tetovo to the border crossing with Kosovo at Jazince.

Army spokesman Blagoja Markovski said last night that the rebels had taken hostages: "At the moment, according to available information, about 22 civilians have been kidnapped at various locations on the terrorists' side."

A rebel commander from the Tetovo area told the AP today, on condition of anonymity, that six rebels and eight ethnic Albanian civilians were killed in yesterday's fighting. The claim could not be independently verified. At least two civilians were killed and more than 20 people were wounded, including a policeman and at least four soldiers.

Yesterday's fighting was by far the most serious violation of a cease-fire brokered by NATO and the EU, which took effect on 5 July. Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski said earlier that government forces will launch an all-out offensive against the rebels unless they withdraw.

Reports say the fighting deals a heavy blow to Western efforts to halt the fighting and hammer out a peace deal. Talks broke down last week as the two sides could not agree on whether or not to make Albanian an official language.