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Macedonia moves against rebels

Ethnic Albanian businesses have been targeted by rioters  

VAKCINCE, Macedonia -- Macedonian forces have fired rockets near a village evacuated minutes earlier in response to an ambush which claimed two of their soldiers, reports say.

A photographer and cameraman from Reuters said they saw two helicopters circling over Vakcince, 5 km (three miles) from the Serb border, firing at houses and a forest.

A defence ministry spokesman confirmed Macedonian forces had begun an operation to drive out ethnic Albanian rebels from the area.

Two Macedonian soldiers were killed in an ambush by rebels near the village earlier on Thursday.

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People living in Vakcince and neighbouring villages were subsequently told to leave the area and head for the region's largest town of Kumanovo by 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Thursday, Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski told CNN.

The Macedonian security forces also told rebels to "put down their weapons and surrender" and "not to forcefully take local inhabitants and use them as human shields."

Security reinforcements had been seen heading for the region, including troops and armoured cars, on Thursday morning.

"Security services have no other option of emptying the region," Pendarovski said. "In the next 48 hours we may speak of conditions to increase political dialogue."


Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski: Demonic acts of killing

AIFF or WAV sound

State radio said the rebels had claimed the area around Vakcince as their "liberated zone."

The military manoeuvre comes in the wake of increased tension near the village of Vakcince after eight soldiers were killed over the weekend.

The ambush on Thursday claimed the lives of two more when their armoured vehicle was attacked as it returned from a routine border patrol. A third soldier was captured while others managed to escape, defence ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov said.

Ethnic Slavs have responded to attacks on Macedonian forces by damaging the property and businesses of ethnic Albanians.

A curfew had been imposed on the city of Bitola late on Wednesday, the scene of some of the worst of the rioting.

At least 10 shops in the ethnically-mixed city were destroyed on Tuesday, a night after dozens of buildings were damaged by young Slavs setting fire to them.

The latest action came after Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski held talks with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House in Washington.

Trajkovski told CNN on Thursday that he had urged President Bush to maintain U.S. forces in the region.

He added: "I has excellent talks with President Bush and told him any withdrawal of U.S. troops would have a negative effect on Macedonia. A U.S. presence is indispensable.

"We are fighting terrorists, not rebels, and we have exercised the utmost restraint in tackling them."

He said he had told Bush that his government had a strong commitment for Macedonia to be a part of NATO, and that remained its strategic goal.

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U.S. State Department

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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