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The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"This is not a one-sided battle anymore"
 real 56k

The BBC's Nick Wood
"The army and police are very jumpy at the moment"
 real 28k

Stevo Pendarovski, Macedonian Interior Ministry
"We are right now in the real war"
 real 28k

Sunday, 25 March, 2001, 16:33 GMT
Macedonia assault makes ground
The armoured column heads for the hills
The armoured column heads for the hills
Macedonian government forces have taken some ground after launching the first serious assault on ethnic Albanian rebel bases on hillsides above the northern city of Tetovo.

But they have met fierce resistance from the guerrillas, and at least one policeman, a soldier and four civilians have been wounded.

More than 200 troops, sheltering behind tanks and armoured personnel carriers, have advanced about a kilometre up the thickly-forested hillsides.


After several hours fighting, they took the village of Gajre, which faces the main ethnic Albanian rebel base across the valley at Selce.

Tanks pushed their way through trees felled to block the road and moved gradually into the village, firing as they went.

BBC correspondent Nick Wood - reporting from the scene - says the National Liberation Army rebels have withdrawn into the woods above the village.

Many houses were on fire; 50 villagers were found hiding in a cellar.

Albanians wounded

The director of the Tetovo hospital said one policeman and four civilians had suffered bullet wounds. All the wounded civilians were ethnic Albanians.


We are right now in the real war

Stevo Pendarovski, Macedonian Interior Ministry
Mortars have been brought up to help the advancing troops, and are now targetting the rebel positions at Selce.

The government says it expects the offensive to be over in two days.

Correspondents say that given the rebels' knowledge of the terrain and their mobility, that may be optimistic.

Sunday's attack was the first time government forces have been sent into the hills, after pounding suspected guerrilla positions above the town for more than a week.

smoking ruin
A house is set on fire in the artillery barrage
A spokesman said the government had acted now because the country's Macedonian and Albanian communities were becoming radicalised and there was a danger they would start taking matters into their own hands.

The attack began after a fierce artillery bombardment beginning at dawn.

A long convoy of army vehicles passed through Tetovo ahead of the offensive, and helicopter gunships have been seen in action for the second consecutive day.

'Retake territory'

"Actions undertaken until now only succeeded in containing the terrorists, but we now want to retake the territory," Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski told the BBC.

"We are right now in the real war," he said. The guerrillas are believed to have between 300 and 700 lightly armed fighters in the mountains and in villages where up to 20,000 people may still be living.

Tetovo
Civilians have been ordered to move
The BBC's defence correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, says the rebels are relatively well-equipped and have great mobility.

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

The international community is providing political and financial support to Macedonia in its fight against the guerrillas, but is at the same time urging restraint on both sides.

Civilians have been warned to pack up and leave the areas at the heart of the conflict. Thousands have done so.

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

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See also:

24 Mar 01 | Europe
Bush warns Macedonia rebels
23 Mar 01 | Europe
In pictures: Death in Tetovo
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
24 Mar 01 | Europe
Double vision in Macedonia
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