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The BBC's Jim Fish
"The heaviest day of fighting so far"
 real 56k

Nato spokesman Mark Laity
"You need a twin-track approach"
 real 28k

The Macedonian Interior Ministry's Stevo Pendarovski
"The situation is under control"
 real 28k

Monday, 26 March, 2001, 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK
Macedonia rebels in retreat
Ethnic Albanians refugees arrive in the village of Donje Ljubinje in southern Kosovo
People fleeing the army offensive arrive in Kosovo
Ethnic Albanian rebels have abandoned their headquarters in the hills in north-western Macedonia as the country's army continues a long-awaited offensive.

The Macedonian Government says it will not stop the offensive, near the city of Tetovo, until "the final takeover of all terrorist positions".

Helicopters came above our heads and started firing into the woods which were filled with refugees

Refugee fleeing army offensive

Hundreds of refugees have fled ethnic Albanian villages in the area, some saying they had come under attack from Macedonian forces.

Nato and European Union leaders are due to arrive in the capital, Skopje, on Monday and are expected to urge the government to exercise restraint.

Fled rapidly

Reporters who reached the headquarters of the National Liberation Army (NLA) rebels, in the mountain village of Selce, found it deserted.

The AFP news agency reported from the scene that the rebels appeared to have left in a hurry, abandoning weapons including rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns by the road side.

But there were no sign of Macedonian troops in the village.

Earlier on Monday, a spokesman for the army confirmed it had resumed the offensive it began the day before. He said the army had captured a medieval fortress overlooking Tetevo.

Correspondents say there has been a sense of suppressed euphoria among government officials since Sunday's fighting, in which troops supported by tanks and helicopter gunships spent the day slowly advancing.

Journalists were allowed to follow army troops as they captured the village of Gajre after several hours of fighting with the NLA rebels.

Gajre was on Monday reported to be firmly in the hands of the army, nearly two weeks after the rebels took control of it.

Macedonian army
Manpower: 17,000
98 battle tanks
14 aircraft
5 helicopters, including two Soviet-designed gunships
50 air defence guns
30 surface-to-air missiles
Mortars and heavy artillery
112 armed vehicles, most in poor condition
Shortage of basic supplies
Estimates from International Institute for Strategic Studies

The government says the offensive against the rebels, who have been shelling Tetovo for nearly two weeks, will be over by Monday night.

Political fears

But there are fears that the short-term military gains could radicalise Macedonia's ethnic Albanians, many of whom feel they are treated as second-class citizens, and further destabilise the country.

The government is anxious to emphasise that its troops are not targeting ethnic Albanian civilians.

Ethnic Albanian teacher Izair Halili walks to his burned property in Gajre
A villager in Gajre approaches the charred remnants of his home
However, hundreds of refugees fled across the border into Kosovo after a 12-hour night trek through snow-covered mountain passes.

Some said they had come under fire.

"While walking through the hills, helicopters came above our heads and started firing into the woods which were filled with refugees," 35-year-old Arif Azemi told the Associated Press news agency.

The government has also been making efforts to persuade the main moderate Albanian party, the DAP, not to quit the governing coalition.

Calls for restraint

Balkan analyst Misha Glenny says that, if the DPA were to move into opposition, there would be a rapid polarisation of the political situation.

Nato Secretary-General George Robertson and European Union security chief Javier Solana are due in Skopje on Monday.

Albanian rebels
Manpower: 300-700
Light anti-tank weapons
Kalashnikov rifles
Chinese-made machine guns
Sniper rifles and mortars

"Our message... will be: 'You've made your military move, now remember it has to be a twin-track strategy and please start talking to the moderate Albanians,'" a Western source told Reuters.

The Macedonian government will argue that Nato-led peacekeeping troops in the Serbian province of Kosovo are still not doing enough to prevent the rebels from crossing the border.

On Sunday, Nato tried to reduce the flow of weapons to the NLA by allowing hundreds of Yugoslav troops and police into border areas.

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has announced that he is sending 120 more troops to southern Kosovo who will operate unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

And Mr Blair said some British troops already in Kosovo would join forces with Swedish troops to form a 400-strong unit to help patrol the Kosovo-Macedonia border.

At least one policeman, a soldier and four ethnic Albanian civilians were wounded in Sunday's fighting.

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.

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See also:

26 Mar 01 | Europe
Military forces in Macedonia
26 Mar 01 | Europe
Yugoslavia beefs up buffer force
23 Mar 01 | Europe
In pictures: Death in Tetovo
25 Mar 01 | Europe
The Tetovo advance
18 Mar 01 | Europe
Greater Albania question
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