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Rebels killed in Macedonia

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- More than 30 rebels were killed in the latest fighting near the villages of Vaksine and Slupane, Macedonian military officials say.

Government forces resumed shelling ethnic Albanian rebels in several northern towns on Saturday, shattering a day-long ceasefire that had enabled politicians to forge a new 'unity' government.

Macedonia's main ethnic Albanian and Slavic parties met to approve ministers from the four main parties - two Slav-dominated and two ethnic Albanian - and some affiliated smaller parties, ahead of Sunday's parliamentary session to approve the new government.

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CNN's Chris Burns reports on political talks to end the continuing violence.

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Chris Burns: Tanks firing into rebel positions.

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Lesson plan: Continued fighting in Macedonia
 

A source close to the government told CNN ethnic Albanians would be given the cabinet positions of labour, local self-government, economics and justice.

The broad coalition has been welcomed by the U.S. and the European Union, who see it as the best way to prevent an upsurge in the crisis.

The deal to form the new government was first reached on Tuesday, but was stalled by the Party for Democratic Prosperity who refused to cooperate until a ceasefire was in place.

It aims to force parties to unite and pass laws which meet the longstanding grievances of the country's one-third Albanian minority, isolating the ethnic Albanian gunmen.

CNN Correspondent Chris Burns says ethnic Albanians claim they are often treated as second-class citizens, and they have been pushing for reforms to give them more rights and improve their access to education and jobs.

He characterised Saturday's fighting as "low-level" exchanges, saying troops returned rebel gunfire with volleys of tank fire near the town of Mateice.

Army spokesman Blagoja Markovski told a news conference on Saturday: "Today we have a massive operation. It began at 10:10 a.m. (0810 GMT) when we hit targets in Slupcane. At 10:20 we hit a column of uniformed terrorists to the north of Slupcane.

"We were most active at about 2:30 p.m. when we hit a column to the northwest of Vakcince. We used artillery and tanks in the morning and helicopters in the afternoon."

Ethnic Albanian insurgents have been battling government forces for several months. In the last two weeks, rebels have been in a standoff with government forces, who have been trying to flush them from a dozen villages in the country's north.

Thousands of residents have been caught up in the fighting with many unable to leave their homes. On Friday, the Red Cross entered the villages during the dawn-to-dusk ceasefire, and evacuated 69 people - some pregnant and others ill.

Earlier on Saturday, Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim quit after a key ethnic Albanian party agreed to participate in the "grand coalition" government.

Kerim, who won wide respect for his efforts to persuade Western leaders to back Macedonia's bid to quash the rebel insurgency, is believed to have accepted a role in the country's mission to the United Nations in New York.

CNN has learned that the democratic party SDSM will fill the ministry posts of defence, foreign affairs, health and environment.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgieveski's party, the VMRO, will keep the interior minister position. The coalition replaces Georgievski's previous, smaller alliance of parties.

"The parties reiterated their common interest that the security situation in the country should be their basic task," said Georgievski.

The broad-based government is expected to have the two-thirds majority necessary to approve constitutional reforms demanded by the ethnic Albanian minority, which makes up about a third of the country's two million people.

Leaders of the rebel National Liberation Army, or NLA, were not invited to the bargaining table.

Macedonia's government refuses to negotiate with the militants, describing them as terrorists bent on carving up the country and creating a larger ethnic Albanian state in the Balkans.

The rebels said conditions "for sincere dialogue" would be tough to create and instead called for a cease-fire with government forces as a prelude to talks mediated by international officials.

Western officials, however, threw their support behind the coalition government and Macedonia's efforts to quash the militants.

The 15-nation European Union said the coalition agreement sends a "strong message of unity" and called for an end to the violence.



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RELATED SITES:
UNHCR
Macedonian Government
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