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The BBC's Nick Wood
"Two soldiers were killed, another one was taken capture"
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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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Friday, 4 May, 2001, 03:01 GMT 04:01 UK
Macedonia villagers caught in crossfire
Village of Vakcince under fire
Vakcince came under fire after a rebel ambush
The United States has urged the Macedonian Government to avoid civilian casualties in its latest offensive against ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the US condemned the "unprovoked killings" of two Macedonian soldiers in an ambush early on Thursday, and said it supported a "measured response" to Albanian attacks.

We urge the Government of Macedonia to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties as they take the necessary steps to uphold the rule of law

Richard Boucher, US State Department
In response to the rebel ambush, Macedonian helicopter gunships and artillery fired on and around the village of Vackcince on Thursday afternoon.

The Macedonian forces had ordered people in 11 villages near the north-eastern city of Kumanovo to evacuate, but both the army and the rebels said some villagers had remained.

The authorities have imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the area, but correspondents say government forces are ready to resume their offensive on Friday morning.

'All available means'

The BBC's Nick Wood in Skopje says in spite of the fact that few civilians have actually left the area, the army seems determined to push ahead with its operation to flush out the rebels.

map of the region
The rebel NLA appears equally determined, and have responded to the latest Macedonian attacks with mortar fire.

While Macedonian television reported that the army was using "all available means" against the insurgents, rebel leaders accused the military of indiscriminately shelling the villages of Slupcane and Vakcince - an accusation denied by army spokesman, Gjordi Trendafilov, who said they were acting selectively in an effort to protect civilian lives.

It was in Vakcince where two Macedonian soldiers died at Vakcince early on Thursday morning as they were returning from a night border patrol, while a third was captured.

Fading hopes

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.

Macedonian armoured personnel carrier
Macedonia says its offensive is selective
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.

As the situation deteriorates, analysts say there seems to be little hope of a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Talks between the majority Macedonian and minority Albanian communities were under way when the rebels resumed their strikes last weekends.

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:

03 May 01 | Europe
Macedonia army begins offensive
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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