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Renewed Violence In Macedonia

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Government forces pounded rebel strongholds with artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships Friday, despite the resumption of talks between ethnic Albanian and Slav politicians aimed at ending the violence in Macedonia.

Troops began firing before dawn at rebels entrenched between the towns of Aracinovo and Nikustak, a few miles outside Skopje. Two helicopter gunships fired on rebel positions with unguided rockets.

Artillery set a four-story house on fire, blanketing the eastern part of the village with heavy, gray smoke. Soldiers firing multiple rocket launchers hit at least two structures on the eastern end of the town.

The renewal of attacks after an 11-day lull suggests that hard-liners in the government were losing patience with the lack of progress in peace talks.

Macedonian army Col. Blagoja Markovski said the sustained action was aimed at "crushing and destroying terrorists."

Government forces also reportedly were firing for a second straight day on rebel strongholds near the northwestern city of Tetovo and near Kumanovo, close to the northern border with Kosovo.

More than 1,000 villagers crossed into neighboring Kosovo on Thursday from those areas, pushing the total number of refugees this year to nearly 50,000, said Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Kosovo.

A rebel leader known as Commander Hohxa said three civilians were killed and "many" more wounded, including one rebel fighter, in Friday's attack. He accused the Macedonian army of breaking the week-old truce and promised to fight back.

"I'm warning the government if they want war, they're going to get one," he said by telephone from Aracinovo. "We will defend ourselves."

Hohxa claimed that the Macedonian army was trying to enter the town with armored personnel carriers, tanks and infantry. He claimed that the rebels had inflicted casualties and destroyed equipment.

A local ethnic Albanian leader, Ismet Ramadani, said he called the country's prime minister to protest the attack, but was unable to reach him.

"Talks are on hold, but it is possible for talks to get worse — especially after actions like Aracinovo," said Ramadani, who represents the town in parliament. "We will change our tactics."

Rebels have seized several villages in northern Macedonia in what they say is a fight for greater civil rights for the country's minority ethnic Albanians. The government accuses them of wanting to carve up the country and have launched several offensives to try to dislodge them.

Negotiations for a political solution resumed late Thursday, a day after NATO offered to send troops to supervise disarming rebels once a deal is reached.

European Union security chief Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary-general who has taken a lead role in efforts to head off another Balkan civil war, made an unscheduled stop in Skopje to try to overcome an impasse on a plan put forward by Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski.

"I tink we will be able to solve the problem," Solana said after meeting both sides. "I think that we, all of us, will move only forward."

Macedonian officials, who had broken off six days of talks Wednesday, kept talking after Solana took off for Israel.

"We are talking and we will be able to make an agreement," said Imer Imeri, a key ethnic Albanian leader. "First we will start with easier subjects and then we will follow to more difficult ones."

A source in Trajkovski's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the president invited ethnic Albanian and Macedonian leaders to return to the bargaining table Friday, but it was unclear whether they would accept the offer.

A spokesman for Imeri's Party for Democratic Prosperity, Zehir Bekteshi, said Solana also offered to send more experts to work on constitutional changes — the main sticking point.

Despite the latest setbacks, Solana said he still was hoping for progress at an EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday. Solana was to return to Macedonia on Friday night.

The talks broke down over ethnic Albanians' demands for sweeping constitutional reforms to create a federal structure for Macedonia. Macedonian Slav parties reject that as a move toward carving up the country.

"We've reached the red line that Macedonia cannot cross," Macedonia's prime minister, Ljubco Georgievski, said before meeting Solana.

By Aleksander Vasovic
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