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The BBC's Joanne Tucker
"The Nato led peace keeping force is stepping up air and ground patrols"
 real 56k

Saturday, 17 March, 2001, 15:15 GMT
Macedonia battle rages on
Civilians supply police with ammunition as they battle against the rebels
Civilians have been helping supply police with ammunition
Macedonian forces have shelled positions held by ethnic Albanian rebels in a fourth day of clashes around the country's second city, Tetovo.

The sound of mortar and gun fire echoed across the city's empty streets as government soldiers responded to guerrilla machine-gun attacks.

The exchanges of fire over the past 24 hours have been the heaviest since the violence started last Wednesday.

UN Envoy Carl Bildt in Macedonia
Bildt: Macedonian consensus is vital
The UN special envoy for the Balkans, Carl Bildt, said it was essential that the main political parties in Macedonia, including ethnic Albanian factions, maintained a consensus on confronting the crisis.

"If that consensus starts to break down in Macedonia, I don't think there is any amount of military force that can save the country from war," he said.

Fresh attack

Rebel attacks were also reported in Kumanovo, 12 miles (20km) north of the capital, Skopje.

Click here for a map of the region

The prolonged fighting between guerrillas and government troops around Tetovo has intensified fears of a new Balkan conflict.

People fleeing violence in Tetovo
Hundreds of families have fled
The BBC's Nicholas Wood, reporting from Tetovo, says government attempts to dislodge the rebels from the outskirts of the city do not appear to have succeeded.

Germany re-deployed 400 soldiers of its contingent of 1,000 troops stationed in the city after their base came under fire on Friday.

And the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers warned that the intensifying violence could cause a massive refugee problem.

"We simply cannot afford another humanitarian tragedy in the Balkans, where millions of people have been uprooted by violent conflicts in the last decade," he said in a statement.

Nato 'determination'

However, our correspondent says there are no signs yet that the Macedonian army is being deployed in any numbers.

Speaking during a visit to Athens, Nato Secretary-General Lord Robertson said Nato forces had reinforced their presence on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia.

It was now part of their mission to close routes to prevent further incursions by rebels.

German soldier on guard at Kfor base in Tetovo
German Nato forces have come under fire
He said: "We are determined that the stability of [Macedonia] is not going to be threatened by a small number of extremists who prefer bullets to ballot votes."

There are 5,000 Nato-led peacekeeping troops in Albania and Macedonia. They are there to provide logistical back-up to the 37,000 troops in Kosovo, and are not combat troops, said a Nato source.

Bombardment

Mortar rounds fell directly on Tetovo's central square on Friday, the first time fighting had reached the heart of the city, considered the unofficial capital of the ethnic Albanian minority.

One woman was injured, according to the Macedonian Interior Ministry.

Many residents of the city have fled, fearing an escalation of the violence.

"We have to leave" said one," we are caught in the crossfire."

The militants say they are fighting for equal rights for the Albanian population, who make up about a third of the population of Macedonia.

However, the rebels are widely believed to be seeking to annex Albanian-populated areas to Kosovo, in a bid to create a "greater Albania".



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See also:

17 Mar 01 | Europe
Eye-witness: Tension in Tetovo
18 Mar 01 | Europe
Eyewitness: Fear in Macedonia
17 Mar 01 | Europe
EU pledges support to Macedonia
15 Mar 01 | Europe
New Macedonia fighting erupts
15 Mar 01 | Europe
In pictures: Macedonia rebellion
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