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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
Macedonian army in fresh offensive
Map of the region
Macedonian security forces have launched a fresh offensive to clear the ethnic Albanian rebels from their remaining strongholds.

We are ready to fight a war in the areas we control

Rebel leader, Commander Sokoli

The action comes only days after guerrillas were driven from areas around the north-western town of Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city and the unofficial capital of the country's Albanian minority.

"Since this morning a new action of the Macedonian security forces has been underway in order to break terrorists along the northern border where there have been provocations," said army spokesman Blagoja Markovski.

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

He said the army and police were operating near the villages of Brest, Malino Malo and Gosince, where clashes took place earlier this month before the later clashes around Tetovo.

"The army is to occupy the entire border to enforce stronger control", he said.

Loud explosions were also heard from the region of Gracani, a village where the army came under attack from rebels on Tuesday.

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

One of the ethnic Albanian rebel leaders, Commander Sokoli, said the rebels were outraged that the government continued to attack despite their offer of a cease-fire.

"We declared a cease-fire, but the Macedonians are provoking us," Sokoli said.

Security forces battled with Albanian rebels on the very edges of Tetovo, 40km (25 miles) for almost two weeks until finally chasing them out of positions overlooking the large town at the weekend.

The government says the guerrillas above Tetovo fled north-west towards the Albanian-dominated Yugoslav province of Kosovo which they used as a rear base.

NLA gains another rebel

A veteran parliamentarian in an ethnic Albanian party announced he was defecting to the guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (NLA).

Hisni Shaqiri had been a long-serving member of the Democratic Party of the Albanians, which is part of the governing coalition.

He told the BBC that ethnic Albanian politicians had worked for 10 years to get the government to address the grievances of Albanians, but it had not done the slightest to help.

Solana urges dialogue

In Brussels, the European Union's top foreign policy adviser, Javier Solana, urged Macedonia's political leaders to make a clear political gesture towards members of the ethnic Albanian community.

EU foreign policy representative Javier Solana
Javier Solana: time for dialogue is now

He was speaking to the European Parliament at the end of a lightning visit to Macedonia, his third to the region in the past two weeks.

"I emphasised that after the consolidation of the military situation the time had now come to concentrate on the political agenda," he told MEPs.

Mr Solana suggested that, as a gesture of solidarity, the government in Skopje should invite ethnic Albanian leaders to a forthcoming signing ceremony between Macedonia and the EU.

A Macedonian delegation is due to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement - the first step to possible future talks on EU membership - in Luxembourg on 9 April.

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See also:

27 Mar 01 | Europe
EU call for dialogue in Macedonia
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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