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The BBC's Nick Thorpe
"The army are still encountering tough resistance"
 real 28k

The BBC's Jonathan Charles reports from Macedonia
"Macedonia has run out of patience"
 real 56k

Friday, 25 May, 2001, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Macedonian army pounds rebels
Macedonian helicopter fires rockets over Vakcince
The village of Vakcince is the focus of the latest fighting
The Macedonian army has been attacking ethnic Albanian rebels with tanks and helicopters on the second day of an offensive to drive them out of villages in the north of the country.

Map of the region
The fighting has caused a flood of an estimated 2,000 refugees across the border into Serbia, mostly from the village of Lojane, which government forces recaptured on Thursday.

The latest fighting has been concentrated on the village of Vakcince, where the Macedonian army is facing tough resistance.

A political crisis as a result of contacts between ethnic Albanian leaders and the rebels is also continuing to threaten the break-up of the governing coalition.

Minaret toppled

A BBC correspondent in northern Macedonia says attack helicopters, firing rockets as they fly low over Vakcince, are being met by a barrage of machine-gun fire.

Ethnic Albanians evacuated from Vakcince
Civilians have been pouring out of Lojane and Vakcince
He says armoured vehicles are visible above the village firing down on rebel positions.

Other reports said that the village mosque's minaret was toppled in the fighting.

The Red Cross has estimated that 10,000 civilians remain in the rebel-held villages, huddling in basements and running short of food.

Some of the 2,000 who fled overnight were reported to be from Vakcince.

Wheelbarrows

A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, said the refugees included children and men and women of all ages, including elderly people transported in wheelbarrows.

Wounded Albanian
Albanian politicians have warned the army not to hurt civilians
They are arriving in the Presevo valley area of Serbia, which until last week was the scene of frequent clashes between security forces and the local ethnic Albanian population.

Some are continuing their journey to Kosovo.

Clashes have been occurring in and around Vakcince for three weeks, after rebels ambushed a Macedonian border patrol and declared themselves in control of the area.

On Thursday the army said it expected to retake 11 rebel-held villages within 24 hours.

Officers said they were trying to avoid civilian casualties, but rebel commanders said a shell had hit a basement in the village of Slupcane, killing seven people.

Political storm

Ethnic Albanian ministers have been responding to a warning from President Boris Trajkovski that they could lose their posts in the country's coalition government if they fail to renounce a secret peace deal struck with the rebels.


All sides can benefit from the consultations

Arben Xhaferi
The deal, mediated by a senior diplomat from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), offered the rebels amnesty guarantees and a right of veto over decisions about ethnic Albanian rights, if they agreed to stop fighting.

The ministers said they thought they were negotiating with the government's approval, and had no intention of renouncing the agreement.

"All sides can benefit from the consultations," said Arben Xhaferi, leader of the Party for Democratic Prosperity.

The US embassy in Skopje described the deal as "totally unacceptable", while an OSCE spokesman said the diplomat who mediated it, Robert Frowick, had been "acting on his own".

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