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Smoke rises over houses hit by shells from Macedonian forces in Slupcane village, June 8, 2001. Macedonia's president outlined a plan on Friday to end a four-month insurgency by Albanian rebels as his armed forces ignored guerrilla calls for a cease-fire by launching fierce assaults on rebel positions. (Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters)
Smoke rises over houses hit by shells from Macedonian forces in Slupcane village, June 8, 2001. Macedonia's president outlined a plan on Friday to end a four-month insurgency by Albanian rebels as his armed forces ignored guerrilla calls for a ceasefire by launching fierce assaults on rebel positions. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
Smoke rises over houses hit by shells from Macedonian forces in Slupcane village June 8, 2001. The Macedonian army ignored rebel calls for a ceasefire and launched a fierce assault on ethnic Albanian guerrillas on Friday, hours before a key speech by the country's president on peace proposals. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
Civilians said killed as Macedonia forces attack rebels.
MATEJCE MONASTERY, Macedonia, June 8 (AFP) -
Macedonian government forces on Friday used tanks and helicopters to launch a fresh attack on positions held by ethnic Albanian guerrillas, and a rebel leader said that at least three civilians were killed by the shelling.
The rebel leader told an AFP journalist that the casualties occurred when helicopters strafed houses where civilians were sheltering in the village of Otlja.
He also said at least one house sheltering civilians in the nearby village of Lipkovo was hit. The reports could not be independently verified.
Friday's early-morning attack came just hours after the guerrillas of the self-styled National Liberation army (NLA) offered a conditional ceasefire from midnight (2200 GMT) Thursday, and as Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said he would refrain from declaring a state of war in the country.
Shooting and shelling started around 5:00 am (0300 GMT), said an AFP reporter who reached the rebel-controlled zone with a convoy carrying food for the guerrillas.
The guerrillas and government forces have been engaged in violent clashes around the villages of Slupcane and Matejce, northeast from Skopje.
"The Macedonian army is trying to take over the villages, but it will not make it," one of the guerrilla leaders said.
He claimed that more than 30 army tanks were involved in the attack on the village. The rebels responded with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns.
The rebel commander said that a house in the village of Lipkovo, where he said between 8,000 and 15,000 Albanian civilians were sheltering, had been hit by the government shelling.
"There are certainly casualties but we cannot for the moment approach the house," the rebel commander, Hassan, said.
More than sixty shells were fired on rebel positions around the villages of Slupcane, Otlja and Orizare, he said.
About a dozen very powerful explosions were heard from near a rebel-held Orthodox monastery in Matejce. Return fire from the NLA guerrillas was sparse.
Outside the monastery's church an Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus still hung above the entrance. On one wall, the letters "UCK," the Albanian acronym for the NLA rebels, had been scrawled.
The monastery itself has been spared from clashes, as the Macedonians, who are Orthodox Slavs, have held back from shelling it, although there was a gaping hole in one of the side buildings.
"They shot at it from a helicopter," commander Hassan said.
It was difficult to estimate the exact amount of damage caused by the Macedonian attack, however.
An AFP reporter saw a fighter plane, apparently a Russian Mig-21, fly low over the area.
Macedonian troops fight for water supply as president moots amnesty.
SKOPJE, June 8 (AFP) -
Macedonian forces launched a major attack Friday against ethnic Albanian rebels they accuse of holding the city of Kumanovo's water supply to ransom, while President Boris Trajkovski presented a partial amnesty to break the country's military and political deadlock.
But even as the government backed away from floated plans to declare a state of war to stem the growing revolt, police reported sightings of "terrorists" in Aracinovo, a largely ethnic Albanian town just 10 kilometres (six miles) from the centre of the capital Skopje.
In a bombardment that started before dawn and went on throughout the day, the army unleashed tank shells, artillery and helicopter gunship fire on positions of the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), which says it is fighting for more Albanian rights in the predominantly Slav country.
Shells sent clouds of thick white smoke billowing over the foothills of the Black Mountains, just west of Kumanovo, which has been without running water for three days.
Army spokesman Colonel Blagoja Markovski said the push was aimed at wresting from the rebels two large lakes that supply the northern city with water.
Kumanovo's 100,000 residents have been lining up at water tanks to receive their water rations, as the authorities accused the rebels of shutting off the taps and "blackmailing" the government.
The NLA denied the charges, and said the army had tampered with pumping equipment as it withdrew from the area last month.
As the two sides slugged it out in the hills, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski shelved proposals by a government spokesman for a state of war to be declared, which would have given the army wider scope to tackle the rebels.
The move met with sharp criticism from the international community and ethnic Albanian parties in the fragile government coalition.
It was feared that a declaration would raise tensions, trample human rights and push the ethnic tinderbox state even closer to civil war.
President Trajkovski presented parliament with a plan for an amnesty for Macedonian Albanian rebels who lay down their arms and resume civilian life, but said their leaders -- who he says come from neighbouring Kosovo -- would be "eliminated."
"Local citizens put under pressure to join rebel groups have to be given the chance to pull out. This plan gives them a chance to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society," said Trajkovski, who also slammed the idea of enforcing strict war-time measures.
But he warned that "terrorist leaders of today and tomorrow will be eliminated unless they go back to where they come from."
He gave no details of the plan, adding he would present it to parliament when the "conditions are fulfilled."
In a disturbing sign that the guerrillas were moving further from their mountain strongholds in the north toward Skopje, police reported a group of 30 "terrorists" in Aracinovo, which could herald attacks on the capital or its airport, just seven kilometres southeast of the town.
Observers have long feared that a rebel move into the town -- seen by many officials as a centre for smuggling and organised crime -- could bring the conflict to Skopje for the first time and tip the country into chaos.
The European Union's top representative for foreign and security affairs, Javier Solana, was to fly into Skopje late Friday to press the government once again to seek a political as well as military approach to solving the crisis.
The government has been urged by the West to talk to moderate ethnic Albanians and address the concerns of discrimination, while pursuing a moderate military campaign against the rebels.
But the rebels have taken control of several villages in the north, near the UN-run and overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian Yugoslav province of Kosovo.
More than 10,000 civilians have been pinned down in the area for more than a month by Macedonian artillery fire.
Russia added its voice to calls for a more measured response Friday, with Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov urging political pressure accompanied by "selective" use of force.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson on Thursday offered his help in disarming the rebels, hinting that they could be given an amnesty and allowed to move into Kosovo unmolested if they had not been involved in the killings of more than 20 security officers since February.
Trajkosvki's office first mooted the idea for an amnesty last week. The rebels in return have said they would consider a ceasefire, and accused the army of killing at least three civilians in its latest bombardment.