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The BBC's Nick Thorpe
"The security forces will only respond if they are first fired on from rebel positions"
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The BBC's Jonathan Charles
"The Albanian rebel fighters are certainly taking flight"
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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Clashes as Macedonia deadline looms
Resident of Slupcane
The clashes have left many civilians trapped
Fresh gun battles have been fought in northern Macedonia, only hours after the country's new national unity government gave rebels a "final warning" to end their uprising.

The clashes were reported in several villages which have become strongholds for the ethnic Albanian rebels.

Terrorists opened fire on our positions near Slupcane and Opaje with automatic weapons, machine guns and mortars

Army Colonel Blagoja Markovski
The government deadline gave the rebels until noon on Thursday to lay down their arms or leave the country.

A spokesman said the army would not launch any fresh offensives until the deadline had passed, but would respond if provoked.

But after overnight clashes on Tuesday, each side accused the other of firing first.

"Terrorists opened fire several times on our positions near Slupcane and Opaje with automatic weapons, machine guns and mortars," said army spokesman Colonel Blagoja Markovski.

He said troops returned fire, and by daybreak the situation was "tense, but calm", he said.

Fears for civilians

Rebel commander Ali Daja told the French news agency AFP that the fighting had been fierce, but denied that his men had been the first to open fire.

The villages, in Macedonia's northern hills, have been under rebel control for a fortnight.

Thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped, while many more have fled across the border into Kosovo.

Rebels in Slupcane
Rebels have been given until Thursday to stop fighting
The government said on Tuesday that its ultimatum, setting a Thursday deadline for surrender, would give civilians a chance to flee.

The Red Cross says many people have been left cowering in their cellars in deteriorating conditions and with dwindling food supplies.

Red Cross officials reached a number of the besieged villages on Tuesday and brought 34 villagers to safety.

Fresh talks are due in the capital, Skopje, later on Wednesday between the new government and a delegation from the European Union.

Trapped children in a cellar in Slupcane
Trapped residents are facing worsening conditions, say aid agencies
Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, who is leading the three-strong team, will push officials to undertake further reforms.

The EU fears that, if Macedonia slides into civil war, a new round of Balkans instability could be unleashed.

The new government - which includes two ethnic Albanian parties - is working on ways to build confidence between the country's different ethnic groups, in an attempt to steer a path back towards peace.


Macedonia's new defence minister, Vlado Buckovski, warned on Tuesday that instant peace was unlikely.

"We must not bear any illusions that such attacks will halt overnight," Mr Buckovski said.

"The new government has no magic wand but we will work painstakingly to solve our country's problems."

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See also:

14 May 01 | Europe
Macedonia coalition gets to work
12 May 01 | Europe
Macedonian army 'kills 30 rebels'
03 May 01 | Europe
Macedonia army begins offensive
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