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Macedonia begins 'final offensive'

Armoured vehicles
Armoured vehicles move into Tetevo  

TETOVO, Macedonia (CNN) -- A "final offensive" by Macedonian troops against Albanian rebels has begun in the hills above Tetovo, Defence Ministry officials said.

Intense artillery fire could be heard as the offensive began on Tuesday.

The campaign to drive the rebels out of the hills came despite an offer from the rebels to enter into negotiations to stop the shooting, now in its seventh day.

The rebels warned the fighting would continue if the government did not enter negotiations. They said they were fighting for greater Albanian rights and called on government officials to signal if they want the dispute ended peacefully or not.

The Macedonian Government did not immediately respond to the rebel offer, but in the past President Boris Trajkovski has said he would not negotiate until the violence ended.

CNN's Patricia Kelly reports on the EU diplomatic effort to restore peace in Macedonia (March 20)

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Kris Janowski, UNHCR: families moving to safety

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EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana: The problems of the Balkans have to be resolved through dialogue and not through violence

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CNN's Chris Burns: The government's been deploying forces for what they're calling the final operation to crush the terrorists

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The statement was signed "National Liberation Army -- Tetovo branch" and was distributed to media outlets.

European Union envoy Javier Solana said he believed negotiating with the rebels would be a bad idea.

"I think it is a mistake to negotiate with terrorist in this particular case. It is a mistake and we do not recommend to do it," Solana said.

"On the contrary, we recommend that the political parties that represent Albanians, they have to continue participating in the institutions and the government and to continue working through the institutions whatever their demands, but not to start a negotiation with terrorists."

'Proportionate manner'

Solana continued: "The terrorists have to be isolated. Even the Albanian prime minister has condemned the activities of these terrorists. All the more reason all of us have to condemn and isolate the terrorists. Nothing can be achieved through violence and nothing should be achieved through violence.

"The military action the government has to take to defend themselves has to be done in a proportionate matter. They have to defend themselves, but in a proportionate manner."

Macedonian officials say many of the fighters are battle-hardened members of the Kosovo Liberation Army who have infiltrated Macedonia, bringing with them arms that had been stored in Kosovo.

Convoys of Macedonian troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen on Monday streaming into the area near the border with Kosovo.

The Macedonian government claims to have killed about 80 rebels. The rebels claim to have killed at least a dozen Macedonian border police.

Hospital officials in Tetovo said 30 police officers and 10 civilians have been wounded. One civilian, an Albanian man, was killed, they said.

Solana is in the capital of Skopje, where he has been consulting with Macedonia's leadership on how to deal with the rebels.

"We are going to continue day after day in hope that we will achieve something on the line of trying to control the conflict in a manner that will isolate the extremists," he said. "I don't think we can allow them to continue this situation in Macedonia, or in general in the Balkans."

The problems in the Balkans, he said, "they have to resolve through political means and not through violence."

Solana said he held a dinner on Monday with the leadership and all the heads of all the political parties in Macedonia, including the heads of two Albanian political parties.

He called for more dialogue, but the government has said that the violence must end first.

On Monday, NATO agreed to move more KFOR troops into the area along the Kosovo-Macedonia border in an attempt to stop movement by the rebels and to cut their supply lines.

Asked if there were any moves in the EU or NATO to expand the KFOR mission to allow its troops in Macedonia, Solana said the Macedonian Government did not want KFOR inside Macedonia.

In addition, Yugoslav federal troops have moved into an exclusion zone in southern Serbia near the Macedonian border. Yugoslav officials said their aim was to cut off supply routes for the rebels who are operating in Kosovo and Macedonia.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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