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Macedonia mourns soldiers

Soldiers carry the coffin of a comrade killed in Saturday's ambush  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Macedonia is holding a day of mourning for eight soldiers killed in a weekend clash with ethnic-Albanian rebels.

As a result of the incident, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski was cutting short a visit to Romania on Monday and heading to Washington to secure U.S. support in the battle against the rebels.

Trajkovski has pledged to show "no mercy" in his government's efforts to root out those responsible for the killings.

But the rebels involved in the incident near the border with Kosovo claim that they acted in self-defence.

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"We consider it as a provocation by the Macedonian forces so that they could present themselves as the victim," Ali Ahmeti, political leader of the National Liberation Army (NLA) guerrilla force, told Reuters news agency on Monday.

Saturday's clash, was the single most deadly incident since fighting between government troops and ethnic-Albanian militants flared in February.

Government spokesman Antonio Milososki said that the commandos were shot in the head and then stabbed to ensure they were dead.

Six members of the elite "Wolves" security unit also were wounded in the fighting in a gorge near the village of Vejce.

A police statement said between 25 and 30 rebels attacked the government security convoy of four vehicles and 16 men.


EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana: This is something to be condemned

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"It is time now to unite the political forces and all the citizens of Macedonia so that terrorism is defeated," Trajkovski said on state television.

However Ahmeti said NLA forces opened fire after Macedonian troops had approached their positions, Ahmeti said, adding that no NLA soldiers had been killed or wounded during the fight.

"Our soldiers reacted in self-defence. They were in danger and they had to defend themselves," he said.

An NLA field commander, who uses the name Sokoli, also said Macedonian troops were responsible.

Ignoring demands to surrender "the Macedonians started shooting ... to which our soldiers responded with fire," Sokoli told the Associated Press news agency.

He expressed condolences to the families of those killed but warned that his units will respond to attacks with "all necessary means."

Passions ran high at the funeral Sunday of 25-year-old Igor Kosteski, one of those killed.

"This was murder. They killed eight young people for nothing," said his father, Milivoj.

Interior Minister Dosta Dimovska warned of "indications that there might be more such terrorist incursions from Kosovo in the upcoming period."

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said the Kosovo peacekeeping force was "doing all it can to ensure tight control of the border with Kosovo."

At an emergency session, the government called the Vejce assault a "vicious, terrorist attack" and called on NATO in Kosovo to increase control of the borders, maintaining that the attackers came from the Serbian province.

In related violence, three Yugoslav soldiers were reported wounded when their vehicle ran over a landmine north of the Macedonian border, in southern Serbia.

Later on Sunday, the government press office reported that ethnic-Albanian militants in the area launched an attack against the Serb police near the town of Vranje.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade that the Macedonian attack showed Balkan security remained threatened by Albanian "terrorism." NATO, the European Union and Russia also condemned the assault.

Trajkovski's U.S. trip was agreed on during U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Macedonia earlier this month.

Powell expressed support for Trajkovski's government and urged the ethnic Albanians to negotiate with the Macedonian authorities.

Trajkovski said that he would demand "strong support" of the American administration for a complete and lasting defeat of the terrorist groups in Macedonia.

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European Union
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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