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The BBC's Jonathan Charles, in Skopje
"Macedonia's military campaign is gaining momentum by the hour"
 real 56k

Sunday, 24 June, 2001, 01:45 GMT 02:45 UK
Macedonia defiant as attacks continue
Macedonian attack helicopters
The government has stepped up its offensive
The Macedonian Government has said there will be no let up in attacks on ethnic Albanian rebels in the north of the country, as diplomatic efforts continue to try to resolve the conflict.

A government spokesman told the BBC that he was confident that the rebels would be defeated within four or five days.

The statement came as the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, flew in to the capital, Skopje, on his latest mission.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana
Solana: Rebuffed
He arrived at Skopje airport within view of a battle raging for control of a nearby town, Aracinovo, where the rebels are under heavy attack from artillery, tanks and aircraft.

Western officials say Mr Solana's talks with Macedonian President Boris Trajkosvki went badly, and the Macedonian leader was impervious to all appeals to stop the government assaults.

Some 3,000 ethnic Albanians have left the country in the past few days, fearful that the violence may spread, and the political parties that represent them have threatened to withdraw in protest from the governing coalition.

A BBC correspondent in Macedonia says that if this happens, the slide towards civil war could be accelerated.

Click here to see map of the region

On Saturday, for the second consecutive day, Macedonian troops subjected Albanian-held Aracinovo to a heavy artillery barrage, in clear defiance of Nato and the European Union.

A Macedonian army spokesman said the infantry had recaptured one third of the town as part of a major offensive.

A Macedonian man riding a bicycle away from the village of Aracinovo
Columns of smoke are rising from the village
The military offensive - involving tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery - began at dawn on Friday, two weeks after the rebels seized Aracinovo.

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

A rebel commander told the BBC that if the attack on the village continued, he would shell Skopje.

It remains unclear whether the rebels - reported to number more than 700 - have the firepower to carry out their threat.

The smoke of battle was clearly visible from Skopje airport as Mr Solana flew in from the Middle East, where he has been attempting to consolidate a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sukhoi ground attack aircraft
Sukhoi jets have boosted Macedonia's forces
As Mr Solana's plane taxied to a stop, Macedonia's latest military acquisition - a Russian-built Sukhoi ground attack aircraft - swooped low and fast over the runway and soared into the sky, close to Aracinovo.

Our correspondent says there is a sense of deep gloom amongst Western diplomats after their chief peace negotiator was rejected so contemptuously.

He adds that Mr Solana is now likely to leave the Balkan stage, and the European Union may replace him with a permanent peace envoy to Macedonia as early as Monday.

Nato Secretary-General George Robertson has described the new offensive as "complete folly".

In a strongly-worded statement, Lord Robertson urged the government to cease hostilities.

Nato Secretary General George Robertson
Lord Robertson: "No military solution to this crisis"
"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."

Nato has pledged to send 3,000 troops to Macedonia, but only if a political settlement is reached.

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:

22 Jun 01 | Europe
Crunch time for Macedonia
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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