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The BBC's Ben Brown
"The coming days will be critical"
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The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"Not everywhere are communities divided yet"
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Macedonian government spokesman Antonio Milosofki
says he is suspicious of the Albanian politicians' statement
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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 23:50 GMT
West backs Macedonia
Macedonian security forces
The Macedonian army says it has made advances
European Union leaders have expressed support for the Macedonian Government's military action against ethnic Albanian militants in the northwest of the former Yugoslav republic.

Meeting at a summit in Stockholm, EU leaders said they would sign an association agreement next month as a gesture of support.

We will stand by Macedonia at this critical moment in its history. Extremism has no place in 21st-century Europe

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson
Kosovo Albanian political leaders have meanwhile urged the guerrillas to lay down their arms immediately and return home.

And Nato Secretary-General George Robertson reiterated the Alliance's support for Macedonian President Boris Trajkosvski, who has repeatedly called the rebels "terrorists".

Mr Trajkovski welcomed the EU backing and said there was no question of negotiating with the guerrillas.

No apparent support

The combination of statements leaves the guerrillas with little sign of support from any quarter.

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

We call on the extremist groups which have taken up arms in Macedonia to lay them down immediately and to return to their homes peacefully

Kosovo Albanian leaders
The leaders - Ibrahim Rugova, Hashim Thaci and Ramush Haradjinaj - simultaneously called on Macedonia to show restraint and to address the grievances of ethnic Albanians living there.

The statements backing the government came as the Nato-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, K-For, reported that a number of civilians were injured by shrapnel after the Macedonian army attacked rebels in the hills above the northern town of Tetovo.

Tensions are running high around Tetovo, where the Albanian community buried a father and son gunned down by Macedonian security forces who said they had acted to prevent a grenade attack.

The dead men's friends and family say they were innocent victims and that the supposed grenade was, in fact, a mobile phone.

Leaders united

Mr Rugova, perhaps Kosovo's most respected political leader, heads the Democratic League of Kosovo which for a decade led a parallel government that defied Serbia's control of the province.

Mr Thaci, his principal rival, heads the Democratic Party of Kosovo and was previously the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Mr Haradjinaj, also a former KLA leader, leads the smaller Kosovo Alliance for the Future.

Their statement said: "We, the leaders of the political parties in Kosovo, call on the extremist groups which have taken up arms on the territory of Macedonia to lay them down immediately and to return to their homes peacefully.

"We urge the Macedonian Government to show restraint and to address and to resolve the grievances through peaceful and democratic means."

Risk to aid

Students held two demonstrations in the Kosovan capital, Pristina, this week in support of Macedonian Albanians and the guerrillas.

Skopje aid
More than 20,000 people have fled the fighting

But Western leaders, including a European Union delegation that visited Pristina on Thursday, have told Kosovo's leaders they risk losing international aid and support if they help promote instability in Macedonia.

Similar statements have already been issued by moderate Macedonian Albanians and by the Albanian Government in Tirana, as part of intensive European efforts to isolate the rebels.

Macedonia has repeatedly alleged that the guerrillas are getting supplies and support from Kosovo, and demanded that Nato step up border patrols in the Serbian province.

Rebel fighter resting alongside man-made armour plate
Rebels have threatened to attack across Macedonia
Nato has now agreed to boost its presence on Macedonia's border with Kosovo, while the United States has ordered spy planes to be deployed in the area to monitor the movement of the rebels.

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

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, says an estimated 22,000 people have left their homes in Macedonia since fighting broke out last week.

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See also:

23 Mar 01 | Europe
In pictures: Death in Tetovo
22 Mar 01 | Europe
Macedonia advances against rebels
20 Mar 01 | Europe
Nato raises Macedonian profile
23 Mar 01 | Europe
Spies in the sky over Macedonia
19 Mar 01 | Europe
Analysis: Macedonia stands alone
18 Mar 01 | Europe
Greater Albania question
20 Mar 01 | Europe
Coalition under strain
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