Red Cross teams use lull in fighting to provide aid |

Red Cross teams use lull in fighting to provide aid

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Red Cross teams on Sunday evacuated dozens of ethnic Albanian children, women and elderly caught up in the fighting between ethnic Albanian rebels and government troops.

Using a lull in the fighting, four vehicles of the International Committee of the Red Cross rushed to rebel-held villages in northern Macedonia where residents are running low on food and medical supplies.

”We brought medical supplies to six most affected villages … and evacuated 77 civilians, about half of them children,” said ICRC spokeswoman Amanda Williamson.

The situation of civilians has become a major issue after weeks of battles between government troops and insurgents who say they are fighting for more rights for the ethnic Albanian community, which accounts for nearly a third of Macedonia’s 2 million people.

The government, which is dominated by Macedonia’s Slavic majority but includes ethnic Albanian politicians, has pledged to crush the rebels it accuses of trying to divide the country and control a large piece of the country.

Fresh fighting flared Sunday in northwestern Macedonia, as government artillery pounded rebel positions there.

The army ”opened heavy fire twice against terrorists north of Tetovo … and destroyed a group of 5 terrorists,” army spokesman, Col. Blagoje Markovski said. Tetovo is Macedonia’s second largest city.

He said the insurgents were regrouping in the northwest after suffering a defeat in the region earlier this year.

Since clashes began in northern Macedonia in February, government forces have been unable to completely dislodge or even defeat the militants who remain entrenched mostly in villages north of the capital Skopje. There are some 6,000 ethnic Albanians civilians there.

The government has urged civilians to leave the area to make room for an all-out offensive against the rebels and has accused the guerrillas of using the local population as a ”human shield.”

A few thousand have evacuated from the north, crossing the border into Yugoslavia’s neighboring Kosovo province, and about 250 moved south to the government controlled territory.

Williamson said Red Cross teams have found that many people stay put because of ”a strong sense of solidarity, which seems to increase as time goes on.”

”It is also possible that there is some pressure by the (ethnic Albanian) armed groups on the civilians to stay” as a safeguard against a government attack, Williamson said. ”We can’t say this (pressure) is a fact, but we can’t exclude the possibility.”

Authorities insist they want to avoid civilian casualties.

In the nearby government-held village of Matejce, about half of the original population of 6,000 have now fled. Those remaining, a mix of ethnic Albanians, Macedonians and ethnic Serbs, often stay indoors rather than face rebel snipers in the surrounding hills.

President Boris Trajkovski toured army front lines Saturday, pledging to resolve the crisis caused by the insurrection.

The Macedonian government initially threatened to ”eliminate” the rebels unless they accepted a Thursday deadline to give up their armed struggle. But under intense pressure from the West, the government later promised restraint.

Still, Interior Minister Ljuben Boskovski suggested that government patience was not open-ended, saying the militants must choose between being ”eliminated or … disarmed with prospects for amnesty and clemency.”

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