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25, March-2001.

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Sunday.

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Macedonia assault makes ground.

BBC

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The armoured column heads for the hills.

Sunday, 25 March, 2001, 16:33 GMT

Macedonian government forces have taken some ground after launching the first serious assault on ethnic Albanian rebel bases on hillsides above the northern city of Tetovo.
But they have met fierce resistance from the guerrillas, and at least one policeman, a soldier and four civilians have been wounded.

More than 200 troops, sheltering behind tanks and armoured personnel carriers, have advanced about a kilometre up the thickly-forested hillsides.

After several hours fighting, they took the village of Gajre, which faces the main ethnic Albanian rebel base across the valley at Selce.

Tanks pushed their way through trees felled to block the road and moved gradually into the village, firing as they went.

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BBC correspondent Nick Wood - reporting from the scene - says the National Liberation Army rebels have withdrawn into the woods above the village.

Many houses were on fire; 50 villagers were found hiding in a cellar.

Albanians wounded

The director of the Tetovo hospital said one policeman and four civilians had suffered bullet wounds. All the wounded civilians were ethnic Albanians.

Mortars have been brought up to help the advancing troops, and are now targetting the rebel positions at Selce.

The government says it expects the offensive to be over in two days.

Correspondents say that given the rebels' knowledge of the terrain and their mobility, that may be optimistic.

Sunday's attack was the first time government forces have been sent into the hills, after pounding suspected guerrilla positions above the town for more than a week.

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A house is set on fire in the artillery barrage

A spokesman said the government had acted now because the country's Macedonian and Albanian communities were becoming radicalised and there was a danger they would start taking matters into their own hands.

The attack began after a fierce artillery bombardment beginning at dawn.

A long convoy of army vehicles passed through Tetovo ahead of the offensive, and helicopter gunships have been seen in action for the second consecutive day.

'Retake territory'

"Actions undertaken until now only succeeded in containing the terrorists, but we now want to retake the territory," Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski told the BBC.

"We are right now in the real war," he said. The guerrillas are believed to have between 300 and 700 lightly armed fighters in the mountains and in villages where up to 20,000 people may still be living.

The BBC's defence correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, says the rebels are relatively well-equipped and have great mobility.

There have been allegations that the guerrillas receive support from Kosovo, but the province's three most influential political leaders made clear on Friday that they do not back the rebellion.

The international community is providing political and financial support to Macedonia in its fight against the guerrillas, but is at the same time urging restraint on both sides.

Civilians have been warned to pack up and leave the areas at the heart of the conflict. Thousands have done so.

The guerrillas have threatened to escalate the conflict if the Macedonian authorities reject their offer of a truce and talks.

In pictures: Macedonian ground offensive

BBC

Sunday, 25 March, 2001, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK

Macedonian government forces have launched their first serious ground offensive on ethnic Albanian rebel positions on the hillsides overlooking the northern city of Tetovo.
More than 200 troops, aided by tanks, have advanced about a kilometre up the hills and taken the town of Grajre after encountering fierce resistance from the rebels.

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Macedonian tanks roll over Tetovo's central square leading the way to the hills.

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Heavy mortars are loaded to bombard ethnic Albanian rebel positions.

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Troops prepare to open fire during clashes with the guerrillas.

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And take cover as they advance towards the Albanian controlled village of Gajre.

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A soldier helps an injured colleague in Tetovo.

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Calling for reinforcements.

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Soldiers cover their ears from the noise of machine gun and artillery fire.

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A house burns after being hit by shells.

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Fire rages from a hillside house near the Macedonian town of Tetovo, March 25, 2001. The hills near Tetovo were quiet March 26 after an assault which the government said had driven ethnic Albanians back to Kosovo. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

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