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Fighting Escalates In Macedonia

A wild fire burns in the Osceola National Forest on Friday, May 11, 2007, north of Lake City, Fla.
AP Photo/Steve Cannon
Fighting escalated between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels, with both sides warning of a major offensive as the military acquires more firepower and the insurgents' popularity and ranks continue to swell.

Macedonian helicopters fired rockets in a sweep Saturday outside downtown Tetovo, the country's second-largest city. The choppers were MI-24 attack helicopters acquired just a day earlier from Ukraine.

The helicopters thundered over Mount Sar Planina, the focus of attacks southwest of the city's center, firing several rockets that sent up a large plume of dirt and smoke. It was not immediately clear what they were targeting or whether anyone was wounded.

The late afternoon bombardment came a few hours after two shells apparently fired from rebel positions slammed into a Slavic neighborhood near a police checkpoint, spraying shrapnel through a cobblestone alley and injuring four people.

The rebel mortar blasts peppered the alley in the Koltuk neighborhood with twisted metal fragments and ripped through a red brick house. A trail of blood 100 feet long stained the main street, named for an early 20th century Macedonian hero who led the fight for statehood against the Ottoman Empire.

Local residents pointed to the craters, screaming: "Terrorists! Terrorists!" Using the same label, police spokesman Stevo Pendarovski said "terrorist groups" in the hills above Tetovo were responsible for the attack.

Earlier in the day, security forces unleashed scattered shelling on those hills. The distant boom of heavy artillery on another front also could be heard outside Skopje, 20 miles to the east.

The ethnic Albanian struggle in Macedonia has been linked to the war in Kosovo. Although the rebels in Macedonia say their aim is more rights for ethnic Albanians within Macedonia, the government accuses them of seeking independence and drawing on Kosovo for fighters and weapons.

Germany's Defense Ministry said Saturday it plans to send about 100 paratroopers to Tetovo to shield its soldiers based there to perform supply duties for the NATO-led peacekeeping force in neighboring Kosovo. Most of the 1,000 German soldiers were moved from their Tetovo barracks to a more fortified site last week after it was caught in crossfire.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski spoke for about 20 minutes, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. The secretary of state also had telephone conversations on Macedonia with NATO and EU officials.

Powell called to express U.S. support for his government against ethnic Albanian extremists and offer help with political overtures to the Albanian minority.

Boucher said Powell called Trajkovski to reiterate the policy in a statement Friday by President Bush.

"He deplored and condemned the actions of the extremists and applauded and supported the actions to uphold the coalition in Macedonia, that includes members of all ehnic groups," Boucher said.

Britain, meanwhile, said it would send troops to join in beefed-up controls along the border with Kosovo to help prevent arms from being smuggled to the rebels in Macedonia, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said Saturday.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski suggested late Friday that the military had not yet carried out its threatened operation to "neutralize and eliminate" the insurgents. He said the former Yugoslav republic's poorly equipped military was rapidly arming itself and biding its time.

"The (political) decision has been made. Now it is up to the military to judge when conditions are right for a successful operation," Georgievski said. "It could be one hour, or one day, or one week it is completely up to the military."

It remained unclear, however, why the government has held the military in check from an all-out offensive to reclaim lost ground. The level of intensity of attacks has remained relatively constant for nearly a week after an initial phase of heavy and sustained bombardment.

The rebels, meanwhile, seemed unmoved by the pledges of government action and appeared ready to confront any attack.

"The number of fighters in the mountains is growing enormously," Imer Imeri, head of the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, told the German weekly Der Spiegel. "By now they are also finding broad support among the population."

"I fear that if our demands continue to be ignored, a major offensive will develop this spring and the Albanian population will also take up arms," he was quoted as saying.

In the ethnic Albanian village of Gajre, 2.5 miles outside the center of Tetovo, it was clear that the insurgents had neither retreated nor advanced. Rebels and Macedonian gunners exchanged fire on several occasions in the early afternoon.

Although villagers they feel reasonably secure because their hamlet hasn't been an army target, people were confining their travel to primitive, muddy forest paths, and braving rugged terrain for more than an hour just to give the fighting a wide berth.

Even so, many villagers said they planned to stay.

"If I leave, will the Macedonian government guarantee that my house will not be destroyed?" asked a man who gave his name only as Blerim. "The answer is no. This is why we are staying."