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The BBC's Malcolm Brabant in Skopje
"This morning it seems it is relatively peaceful"
 real 56k

Saturday, 23 June, 2001, 00:04 GMT 01:04 UK
Nato urges end to Macedonia 'folly'
Aracinovo village
The bombardment began at dawn on Friday
Nato Secretary-General George Robertson has described as "complete folly" a new offensive by Macedonian troops against ethnic Albanian rebels.

In a strongly-worded statement, Mr Robertson urged the government to cease hostilities as Macedonia, he warned, was "on the brink of bloody civil war".

Nato Secretary General George Robertson
George Robertson: Macedonia on the brink of bloody civil war
The military offensive - using tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery - began at dawn on Friday, two weeks after the rebels seized a village less than 10km (6 miles) from the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

The assault came despite a government pledge of restraint to allow European Union envoys to continue their peace efforts. It ended an 11-day ceasefire with the rebels.

Inter-ethnic talks on a peace plan collapsed on Wednesday.

'Madness'

In his statement, Mr Robertson demanded an immediate reinstatement of the ceasefire.

"There is no military solution to this crisis and over-reactions at this moment simply deepen already critical divisions," he said.

"New outbreaks of violence, from whichever side, are madness at this sensitive time."

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana
Mr Solana is due back in Macedonia on Friday
The EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is returning to Macedonia to try to break the deadlock. A senior Nato official has also been trying to bring the sides back to the negotiating table.

Mr Robertson said: "This help is being undermined and threatened by this unacceptable resort to violent action."

On Wednesday, the alliance pledged to send 3,000 troops to Macedonia, but only if a political settlement was reached.

Aracinovo attack

Tanks, helicopter gunships and mortar rounds were fired against the village of Aracinovo - within a striking distance from Skopje.

Eyewitnesses have spoken of houses and a four-storey building being engulfed in flames and the top of the minaret of a mosque being blown off as they were hit by shells from tanks and helicopters.

Click here to see map of the region

There was no sign of major troop movement towards the village.

The rebels responded with heavy machinegun fire and a few mortar rounds, showing no signs of giving up.

Macedonian policeman blockades a road into Aracinovo
Security forces blocked roads into the village
A Macedonian Government spokesman said the military action was necessary to "eliminate the terrorists in Aracinovo".

The army has said it had no intention of calling off its attack.

"Our ground troops are on the outskirts of Aracinovo... the next thing is to clear the terrain," army spokesman Blagoja Markovski told a news conference. "One thing is sure. It will not last only one day," he added.

A rebel commander named Hoxha said his forces had broken the Macedonian forces which had withdrawn.

Civilians

He said three civilians had been killed, and one guerrilla injured on the Albanian side; his troops, he added, had killed five policemen. There was no independent confirmation of these casualty figures.

The Macedonian army has denied that civilians were killed, saying the village contained only rebels.

Many non-combatants have fled the village since the guerrillas took control two weeks ago.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski
President Trajkovski says Albanian demands are excessive
But reports from the area say there are still civilians in Aracinovo.

Commander Hoxha has told the BBC that if the attack on the village of Aracinovo continued, he would shell Skopje.

It is not clear whether the rebels - reported to number more than 700 - have the firepower to carry out their threat.

The Macedonian army has been locked in conflict with armed ethnic Albanian rebels - mainly based in the northern Macedonia - since they began an uprising in February.

The rebels retain control of a string of villages near the borders with Kosovo and southern Serbia as well as the village of Aracinovo.



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See also:

13 Jun 01 | Europe
Panic sparks refugee exodus
14 Jun 01 | Europe
Skopje's atmosphere of fear
12 Jun 01 | Europe
Macedonia army chief resigns
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