(Reuters) Macedonia Launches New Offensive to Rout Rebels


Wednesday March 28 6:10 AM ET

Macedonia Launches New Offensive to Rout Rebels

By Sean Maguire

KUCHKOVO, Macedonia (Reuters) - Macedonian forces launched a fresh
offensive against ethnic Albanian guerrillas on Wednesday in what
appeared to be a final drive to rout the rebels from their remaining
mountain hideouts.
    The distant thump of tank and mortar fire could be heard in the
capital Skopje as security forces began an assault at two locations
north of the city.
    A police source said the ``clean-up'' operation began shortly after
dawn, close to the village of Gracani and further east in the Tanusevci
area close to the border with the Serbian province of Kosovo.
    A Reuters reporter close to Gracani, some 15 km (10 miles) northwest
of Skopje, heard the incessant boom of tank and mortar fire and said
tanks and infantry reinforcements had rolled up the winding country
roads early in the morning.
    Another Reuters reporter in the hills on the Kosovo side of the
border saw a Macedonian helicopter charge into position and fire rockets
at rebel positions on the craggy mountain ridge.
    Some six bursts of flame shot from the gunpod as the rockets were
unleashed on ground targets.
    Security forces manning road blocks stopped reporters getting closer
to the battlezones, which have been cut off from view since late last
week. Macedonia first reported clashes with rebels in Gracani last
    A major ground assault on Sunday in the hills above the northwestern
city of Tetovo drove rebels out of positions they had held for 12 days
and back into Albanian-dominated Kosovo where they have rear bases.
    But the insurgents, who military analysts say number a few hundreds,
still hold positions in the Macedonian hills further east.
    Removing the last rebels would clear the way to addressing the
political demands of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians, up to a third of the
population, who complain of second class treatment.


Macedonia said on Tuesday the crisis around Tetovo was over but warned
against the danger of ``urban terrorism'' from the guerrillas who say
they are fighting for greater rights for local Albanians.
    ``I hope that this crisis that we have overcome will leave only a
small scar as a reminder,'' government spokesman Antonio Milosovski told
    ``The information we have suggests...very soon we'll have normal
living conditions and can continue the political dialogue,'' he said.
    Ethnic Albanians say they face discrimination in education,
employment and politics, and the guerrillas appear to have at least
quiet support among the Albanian community.
    But Macedonia's fragile coalition government, which includes the
main moderate ethnic Albanian party, has held together through the
month-long crisis and the rebels appear isolated both at home and
    Government leaders insist the insurgency is wholly imported from
Kosovo by ethnic Albanian extremists bent on fomenting a separatist war.
    Western leaders have condemned the guerrilla army and urged them to
use the political arena to voice their grievances.
    European Union (news - web sites) foreign policy chief Javier Solana
visited Tetovo on Tuesday and said the best thing the rebels could do
now was lay down their arms and ``start a political life.''
    Western political leaders held their breath when the Macedonian army
attacked in strength above Tetovo on Sunday, fearful civilian casualties
would bolster the rebel cause.
    But there was no bloodbath and the West later commended the
Macedonians for a restrained use of force.

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