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Macedonia blasts rebels' village hideouts.
By Oleg Popov
NEAR VAKCINCE, Macedonia, May 4 (Reuters) - Macedonian forces pounded villages in northeastern mountains with mortar and artillery fire on Friday in an offensive against ethnic Albanian rebels.
For a second day, Reuters reporters about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) from Vakcince village saw thick black smoke billow into the morning sky after strikes by artillery, mortars and machineneguns.
Rebels appeared to respond with automatic fire.
Vakcince seemed to be surrounded by the Macedonian forces. At least two other villages southwest of Vakcince, Lipkovo and Slupcane, were also bombarded.
"Today at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) Macedonian security forces continued its operation in a wider region at Kumanovo," Defence Ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov told Reuters.
"For now we are using the artillery to clear the terrain (of the rebels)." Asked if a ground assault will follow, Trendafilov said it would, but gave no details.
"We are attacking only legitimate targets," he said.
On Thursday, Skopje appealed to the population of 10 villages in the Kumanovo region, some 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Skopje, to leave the area where the rebels are believed to be hiding.
The appeal came after the rebels of the National Liberation Army killed two soldiers and captured a third when they ambushed an army patrol at Vakcince. The troops were returning from duty on the border between Macedonia, Kosovo and southern Serbia.
Hours later Macedonian forces unleashed helicopter gunships and artillery fire on Vakcince and areas around it.
It was not clear how many civilians remained in the area. Some of the villages, close to the border with Kosovo, had been vacated when the conflict between the security forces and the insurgents flared up in February and March.
An Interior Ministry source said that only some 200 people left the area on Thursday.
"The operation will go slowly because of the civilians," the source said.
Some local media reports said the gunmen used civilians as human shields, but there was no independent confirmation.
Before the shelling resumed on Friday, a convoy carrying between 150 to 200 special police troops entered Kumanovo, accompanied by an armoured personnel carrier.
WORLD INCREASINGLY WORRIED
Macedonia's parliament was due to hold an extraordinary session later on Friday to discuss the crisis.
The latest violence marked a further deterioration of the security situation in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanian guerrillas launched an insurgency earlier this year which has prompted international fears of another Balkan war.
"I think there must be great concern that this will descend into a spiral of violence and potentially into civil war," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson told Reuters Television on Thursday.
"The international community must do everything to avoid that happening."
European Union sources said that EU foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana would visit Macedonia on Sunday after an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Sweden.
"The European Union strongly condemns the renewed acts of violence by ethnic Albanian extremists..." the EU said in a statement.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher conveyed the same message.
The rebels say they are fighting for equal rights for the ethnic Albanian minority, who make up around one third of Macedonia's population of two million people, but their actions have been strongly condemned by Western powers.
The violence came just hours after U.S. President George W. Bush met Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski in Washington and gave strong backing to the government's strategy of trying to address ethnic Albanian grievances through political dialogue.
Albania: Large build-up of Albanian troops and artillery at the border with Macedonia.
Tirana, - Albania had deployed extra security forces at its border with Macedonia, Tiranas daily newspapers reported. The independent daily Gazeta Shqiptare says three brigades and extra artillery have been deployed just outside the border with Macedonia. Makfax news agency quotes Tiranas daily as saying that the deployment of Albanias extra security forces is linked to recent deterioration of security situation in Macedonia, following the events in Bitola and Skopje, as well the recent incidents in Macedonias western border region, Kimanovo area.
Macedonia: US military aid to arrive today Skopje, - The US military aid allocated to Macedonian Army is on its way to Skopje. The first contingent of military aid arrived yesterday in Bulgarian port of Burgas. The contingent is comprised of 250 containers, including helicopters, the local A-1 television reported late on Thursday. The same source said another two ships, carrying US military aid, are due to arrive within next couple of days. The military equipment will be stationed in the US base near Skopjes airport Petrovec.
DEFENCE MINISTRY DENIES SPECULATION ON ALLEGED LOSSES OF MACEDONIAN ARMY.
Skopje, May 4 (MIA) - The Macedonian Defence Ministry denied the information announced in the afternoon news in Albanian language on the Macedonian Radio Television, that the terrorists shut down a helicopter of the Macedonian Army, destroyed two tanks and killed five Macedonian soldiers.
"The Albanian department, within the Macedonian Radio Television should take into consideration its obligations before the Macedonian public. The opening of propaganda in the interest of the Albanian terrorists proves that it is completely and deeply involved in the preparation of bloody scripts, in the same manner as those who kill the Macedonian soldiers and policemen," reads the statement issued by the Macedonian Defence Ministry regarding the speculations.
Macedonia bombards rebels.
Vakcince was attacked in response to a rebel ambush.
Macedonian forces unleashed a fresh assault on ethnic Albanian rebels in the north of the country on Friday, with unconfirmed reports of civilian casualties.
Military officials, waging their largest offensive against the guerrillas since late March, accused the rebels of holding 3,500 human shields in the villages of Vakcince and Slupcane.
The rebels have denied holding any villagers.
Earlier the government had urged civilians to leave the area, giving them a deadline of 4.15pm (1415 GMT).
Reporters near Vakcince, about 25km (15 miles) north of the capital Skopje, said the new bombardment started half an hour after the deadline passed. They saw heavy artillery, mortars and heavy machinegun fire hitting the area, which was billowing smoke.
"We'll use all available means to eliminate the terrorists," said Defence ministry spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov. He said the army had inflicted "serious damage" on the rebels since the offensive began Thursday.
Commander Sokoli, a leader of the rebel National Liberation Army, denied that villagers were being held as shields, and he accused government forces of "indiscriminate attacks against our civilians".
Speaking from his mountain hideout, he told the Associated Press news agency: "It is a pity what is happening to the civilian population with the blessing of the international community."
He said 2,000 rebels were prepared to fight "until the end" to keep Macedonian troops out of the area.
Colonel Blagoja Markovski, an army spokesman, said there were no civilian casualties. But media in Belgrade and Kosovo reported two civilians killed in the fighting in Vakcince, and the mayor of the town of Lipkovo said at least seven people had been killed.
"It is war," the mayor, Hysamedin Halili, told the Kosovalive news agency. "The people are hiding in the basements. They are in the villages and they do not want to leave their houses."
Commander Sokoli said two rebel soldiers were wounded, one seriously. The Macedonian army did not report any casualties on its side.
The army offensive was launched after guerrillas were reported to have killed two Macedonian soldiers in Vakcince on Thursday. A third was said to have been taken captive.
At the weekend four soldiers and four policemen were killed in another ambush in the north-western town of Tetovo, raising tensions in the Balkan country where minority ethnic Albanians are demanding greater rights and recognition.
Nato and the European Union, fearing fresh bloodshed, prepared to send their top envoys to Macedonia.
The EU's security affairs chief, Javier Solana, planned to arrive Sunday for meetings with Macedonian leaders, and Nato Secretary-General Lord Robertson was to join him on Monday.
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