Macedonian troops launch offensive against ethnic Albanian insurgents.
GAJRE, Macedonia (AP) – Government troops punched through rebel lines and moved into a hillside village Sunday, spraying houses with bullets as they spearheaded an offensive to push ethnic Albanian insurgents back from Macedonia’s second-largest city.
While not claiming all-out victory, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said government forces were doing well, asserting that the thrust to ”clear the terrain of terrorists … is being carried out successfully, and already key positions have been taken.”
The fighting has brought combatants into their closest quarters yet in the six-week conflict near Macedonian border with the Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians constitute a majority. NATO, which has policed Kosovo since expelling former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s troops in 1999, wants the Macedonian conflict defused to prevent a wider Balkan war.
The rebels say their aim is limited to more rights for ethnic Albanians within Slav-dominated Macedonia, but the government accuses them of seeking independence and drawing on Kosovo for fighters and weapons.
In Washington, President Bush said he hoped U.S. and NATO efforts will prove effective in helping Macedonia quell the conflict.
”I’m hoping, of course, that the government is stable and we’re able to seal off the border to prevent people and arms from getting to the rebels,” Bush told reporters as he returned to the White House after a morning jog.
On Sunday afternoon, Macedonian troops led by seven armored personnel carriers and two tanks moved into the village of Gajre, in the hills just northwest of Tetovo, breaking through a rebel roadblock and forcing the insurgents to pull back.
Houses and cars were burning in the village, and bullets sent roof tiles flying as troops blasted houses suspected of harboring rebels. Two helicopters strafed the hillsides.
A lone man ran to free his cows from a burning barn. He then shot a thin stream of water from a garden hose on his barn and house, in a vain attempt to staunch the flames.
After the fighting ended, dozens of terrified people who had been hiding in a cellar surfaced and rushed into the thick forest around the village.
”Our operations gained intensity and are progressing according to plan,” said Antonio Milososki, a government spokesman. ”Several terrorist positions have been taken. … We will go on until the final takeover of all terrorist positions.”
After taking Gajre, the troops regrouped and set up positions overlooking Llavce, another rebel-held village just north of Gajre.
Reporting another government success, state television said Macedonian troops also had taken Tetovo Kale, the ancient Turkish fortress cresting a hill that it said had been a rebel stronghold.
Two soldiers, one police officer and four civilians were slightly injured, Milososki said. Police spokesman Stevo Pendarovski said the four civilians were a family riding in a taxi that entered a combat area. The number of rebel casualties was not known.
In Skopje, the Macedonian capital, the national security adviser, Nikola Dimitrov, pledged that government troops would ”do everything to protect the civilians.”
”If this continues, I believe we are very much close to our aim of stopping militant terrorism and regaining our sovereignty,” he said later.
The government advance was preceded by an early morning mortar barrage meant to soften up the insurgents before the army’s move into the foothills. Amid the thud of exploding rounds, a convoy of armored cars then rumbled down the center of downtown Tetovo before turning toward Gajre, 2 1/2 miles away.
As they approached Gajre, the personnel carriers stopped and about 200 soldiers disembarked and fanned out behind them. Other vehicles pulled six 155-mm cannon up the hill.
The troops looked nervous but determined. ”We are fighting for Macedonia,” said one soldier who refused to give his name. ”For everybody here.”
Slavs in Tetovo cheered the Macedonian government tanks as they clattered down the cobblestone streets, but in Gajre, ethnic Albanians expressed outrage at the attack, asserting government soldiers were targeting the houses of innocent civilians instead of insurgent positions.
”They think that every house is a bunker,” said Nuri Junozic, 46.
Defense ministry spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov said, however, that the army ”is doing its best to avoid unnecessary destruction of civilian homes” and Macedonia was in touch with NATO troops in Kosovo during the operation.
A Macedonian army commander said the rebels were well armed.
”The commanders on the ground confirmed that we are facing an organized terrorist resistance, including sophisticated weapons, cannons and mortars,” said Col. Blagoja Markovski.
Although ethnic relations with the majority Slavs had been relatively trouble-free, substantial numbers of the ethnic Albanian minority felt they are being treated as second-class citizens. The struggle appears to have radicalized a large segment of Macedonia’s Albanians.
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski planned to meet Sunday evening with Arben Xhaferi, leader of the largest ethnic Albanian party and a partner in the coalition government.
The government push came amid a separate move in neighboring Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic, to curb ethnic Albanian militants there. Hundreds of Yugoslav army and police troops, acting with NATO approval, rolled into two more sectors of a tense Serbian buffer zone bordering Kosovo to police the region.
Germany’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that it plans to send about 100 paratroopers to Tetovo to shield its soldiers based there to perform supply duties for the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
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