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The BBC's Nicholas Wood
"This region has become the country's latest frontline"
 real 56k

Lord Robertson, Nato General Secretary
"I hope all sides will act with restraint"
 real 56k

BBC Macedonia Service, Zlatko Andreevski
"It is really important that calm and restraint are re-established in Macedonia, so that talks can continue"
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Balkans Analyst, Misha Glenny
"This is potentially a big Balkans crisis"
 real 28k

Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Macedonia army begins offensive
Macedonian security forces
Macedonian troops are searching for the attackers
The Macedonian army has launched an offensive on rebel ethnic Albanian positions around a village where two of its soldiers were killed in an overnight ambush.

Civilians were ordered to evacuate the village of Vakcince by 3pm (1300 GMT) but the BBC correspondent in Macedonia Nick Wood says helicopter gunships were seen firing rockets at the village before that deadline had passed.

Journalists from the Reuters news agency also reported mortar explosions inside the village.

The government is now giving people in the surrounding area until 6pm to evacuate in order to give the army more room for manoeuvre in its operations.

'Liberated' territory

The interior and defence ministries had told residents to leave Vakcince and register for temporary shelter in nearby towns.

However reports say few people have responded to the government appeal, which was broadcast on television at 10 minute intervals.

Macedonian woman lights candle in protest against killing of soldiers by Albanian rebels
There have been peaceful protests in Bitola too
Two Macedonian soldiers died at Vakcince early on Thursday morning as they were returning from a night border patrol, while a third was captured.

State radio said two guerrillas were killed in the clash and that the rebels had declared the nearby village of Slupcane "liberated territory".

Our correspondent says the emergence of the gunmen in Vakcince and Slupcane has caused considerable concern in the government, which claimed in March it had flushed rebels of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army out of the country.

An ambush on police and soldiers near the north-western town of Tetovo on Saturday, in which eight members of the security forces were killed, made clear they were back.

Riots and attacks on Albanian-owned property broke out in the southern city of Bitola following the men's funerals on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, US President George W Bush promised to increase American efforts to help the Macedonian authorities in their fight against the separatists.

US offer

A White House official said Mr Bush had offered to share US intelligence with Macedonian forces, during a meeting in Washington with President Boris Trajkovski.

Earlier, the main Slav and ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia's ruling coalition warned that the recent violence risks destabilising the country and destroying ethnic tolerance.

The leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, Arben Xhaferi, compared the rioters' attacks on Albanians to Nazi pogroms against the Jews:

People were starting to believe that they could no longer live together, he said.

Talks between the majority Macedonian and minority Albanian communities have so far failed to produce any concrete results and there have been frequent warnings that the conflict could easily re-ignite.

The Albanians are demanding greater recognition in the constitution, as well as better representation in the administration and increased use of the Albanian language.

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See also:

02 May 01 | Europe
Macedonia leaders appeal for calm
30 Apr 01 | Europe
Attack shakes Macedonia talks
22 Mar 01 | Europe
Macedonia advances against rebels
11 Mar 01 | Europe
The rebels' agenda
27 Feb 01 | Europe
Clashes empty Macedonia villages
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