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Macedonian attack poses threat to international airport.
BY RICHARD BEESTON, DIPLOMATIC EDITOR
MACEDONIAN troops opened an offensive against Albanian insurgents on the outskirts of Skopje yesterday, using helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery to try to dislodge a rebel stronghold.
In a dangerous escalation, the four-month-old conflict, so far confined to rural areas, is now in danger of spreading to the capitals streets and threatens the countrys international airport. Residents of Skopje said that they were awoken in the early hours by explosions as tanks and artillery began to shell the sprawling Albanian village of Aracinovo, about six miles from the capital.
By daylight, commuters going to work could see Ukrainian helicopter gunships circling overhead and attacking the village with rockets and machineguns. Tanks moved in, followed by troops in armoured personnel carriers. Columns of smoke could be seen rising from buildings and the minaret of the village mosque was blown away under the barrage. About 1,500 ethnic Albanian refugees fled to neighbouring Kosovo, with more expected.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence in Skopje said that the operation, which ended an 11-day ceasefire, was intended to crush and destroy the terrorists. However, by yesterday evening the rebels were still in control of the village and the army appeared to have made little headway.
The initiative appeared to lie with the rebels, who are thought to number several hundred fighters, and they were threatening a counterattack. Commander Xohxa, a rebel leader in the National Liberation Army (NLA) in Aracinovo, said that three civilians were killed and scores more injured, including one rebel fighter. He said the dawn offensive had been repulsed and that government troops had suffered casualties. State television said that four policemen had been killed.
So far the rebels appear to be holding back, but they are capable of spreading their uprising to the Albanian districts of Skopje, using mortars to hit targets such as the international airport and the countrys main highway.
Despite the risks involved, the Government of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia opted to take action after increasing frustration among the countrys majority Slav population, which felt that the insurgency was out of control and peace talks with Albanian leaders were getting nowhere.
Macedonia defiant as attacks continue.
The Macedonian Government has said there will be no let up in attacks on ethnic Albanian rebels in the north of the country, as diplomatic efforts continue to try to resolve the conflict.
A government spokesman told the BBC that he was confident that the rebels would be defeated within four or five days.
The statement came as the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, flew in to the capital, Skopje, on his latest mission.
He arrived at Skopje airport within view of a battle raging for control of a nearby town, Aracinovo, where the rebels are under heavy attack from artillery, tanks and aircraft.
Western officials say Mr Solana's talks with Macedonian President Boris Trajkosvki went badly, and the Macedonian leader was impervious to all appeals to stop the government assaults.
Some 3,000 ethnic Albanians have left the country in the past few days, fearful that the violence may spread, and the political parties that represent them have threatened to withdraw in protest from the governing coalition.
A BBC correspondent in Macedonia says that if this happens, the slide towards civil war could be accelerated.
On Saturday, for the second consecutive day, Macedonian troops subjected Albanian-held Aracinovo to a heavy artillery barrage, in clear defiance of Nato and the European Union.
A Macedonian army spokesman said the infantry had recaptured one third of the town as part of a major offensive.
The military offensive - involving tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery - began at dawn on Friday, two weeks after the rebels seized Aracinovo.
The rebels responded with heavy machine gun fire and a few mortar rounds, showing no signs of giving up.
A rebel commander told the BBC that if the attack on the village continued, he would shell Skopje.
It remains unclear whether the rebels - reported to number more than 700 - have the firepower to carry out their threat.
The smoke of battle was clearly visible from Skopje airport as Mr Solana flew in from the Middle East, where he has been attempting to consolidate a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians.
Sukhoi jets have boosted Macedonia's forces.
As Mr Solana's plane taxied to a stop, Macedonia's latest military acquisition - a Russian-built Sukhoi ground attack aircraft - swooped low and fast over the runway and soared into the sky, close to Aracinovo.
Our correspondent says there is a sense of deep gloom amongst Western diplomats after their chief peace negotiator was rejected so contemptuously.
He adds that Mr Solana is now likely to leave the Balkan stage, and the European Union may replace him with a permanent peace envoy to Macedonia as early as Monday.
Nato Secretary-General George Robertson has described the new offensive as "complete folly".
In a strongly-worded statement, Lord Robertson urged the government to cease hostilities.
"There is no military solution to this crisis and over-reactions at this moment simply deepen already critical divisions," he said.
"New outbreaks of violence, from whichever side, are madness at this sensitive time."
Nato has pledged to send 3,000 troops to Macedonia, but only if a political settlement is reached.
The Macedonian army has been locked in conflict with armed ethnic Albanian rebels - mainly based in the northern Macedonia - since they began an uprising in February.
The rebels retain control of a string of villages near the borders with Kosovo and southern Serbia as well as the village of Aracinovo.
Russian paratroopers ready to enter Macedonia: general
MOSCOW, June 23 (AFP) -
Russian paratroopers are "ready" to enter Macedonia to help disarm ethnic Albanian rebels if the order is given, the commander in chief of Russia's airborne forces told the Ria-Novosti news agency Saturday.
"We are ready to do it, and if we are given the order, we will enter Macedonia," General Georgi Shpak was quoted as saying.
Clark Says NATO, U.S. Troops Should Be Preparing For Macedonia Action.
European Stars and Stripes
European Stars and Stripes
June 23, 2001
Clark Says NATO, U.S. Troops Should Be Preparing For Macedonia Action
By Jon R. Anderson, Stars and Stripes
Criticizing U.S. leaders for standing "passively by," retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark said NATO and U.S. troops should be preparing for action in Macedonia.
Critical of NATOs hands-off approach toward the growing crisis in Macedonia, the former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe said the alliance should do more to help stop the violence.
"We better get ready to go in there whether theres a peace agreement or not," said Clark, who retired a year ago after leading the 78-day air campaign against Yugoslavia, as well as the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo that followed.
Clarks successor, Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, declined to comment. A NATO official said privately there "seems to be a longstanding tradition among the SACEURs not to comment positively or negatively on predecessors."
Ralston, said the official, "is not in a position to get into a theoretical strategic debate. He has to make the actual decisions now."
Clarks call for action comes as Macedonia launched a new offensive against the rebels, who have been operating out of the ethnic Albanian-dominated highlands that separate Macedonia from Kosovo to the north and Albania to the west.
Ethnic Albanians constitute about one-third of Macedonias 2 million inhabitants. Under the banner of the National Liberation Army, the rebels are calling for greater rights and an overhaul of the Macedonian constitution.
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski has asked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to intervene in the former Yugoslav republics now five-month-old conflict.
Instead, the alliance has offered only a short-term force of about 3,000 troops to receive weapons from guerrillas once and only if a peace agreement is reached. NATO officials have stressed such a contingent would be strictly passive and not form any new peacekeeping force.
Clark said thats not enough.
"NATO should be preparing for a larger, more robust mission. Unlike Bosnia, where we got in too late, we dont want this spin out of control," Clark said in a telephone interview Thursday.
No stranger to the Balkans even before he served as NATOs top military commander in Europe, Clark was one of the architects of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the civil war in Bosnia.
Critics say that war dragged on for more than three years because the international community offered little more than a series of half-steps that ended with thousands dead.
Analysts have long feared that any violence in the Balkans could spill into wider conflict, perhaps even drawing in NATO allies Turkey and Greece on opposite sides.
"We have to be clear about preventing another round of fighting that would destabilize the entire region," Clark said.
The European Unions top diplomat, Javier Solana, has taken the lead in trying to pressure the two sides of the conflict to continue negotiations.
"It should be a joint EU-U.S. effort," Clark said. "We should use NATOs leverage to get an agreement, not just stand passively by. Its not in anybodys interest to let this happen again."
Meanwhile, NATO officials are still in the planning stages for the arms-collecting force that could eventually go into Macedonia should a peace deal be reached.
Britain, France, Greece, Spain and the Czech Republic have volunteered forces, according to a NATO official. Still uncertain is whether the United States will participate.
Although there are already several hundred U.S. troops in Macedonia as part of a logistics hub for the Kosovo peacekeeping mission, Bush administration officials have hinted that the U.S. may stick to providing intelligence and logistics support as opposed to actual combat boots on the ground.
"There are many ways to make a contribution," Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters Thursday.