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Macedonian villagers evacuated

The Red Cross has evacuated villagers during the conflict  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- The Red Cross has evacuated dozens of ethnic Albanians caught up in fighting in the north of Macedonia.

About 6,000 people are still living in villages despite fighting in the region between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces.

The International Red Cross took advantage of a lull in the shelling on Sunday to evacuate children, women and elderly villagers and deliver much-needed food and medical supplies.

Four vehicles drove through army checkpoints to visit the rebel-held villages after obtaining safety guarantees from both sides.

The government has been holding back on an all-out assault since Thursday when an ultimatum to villagers to move out expired.

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"We got security guarantees from both sides," International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Amanda Williamson said.

"We brought medical supplies to six most-affected villages... and evacuated 77 civilians, about half of them children."

In a separate incident fighting flared in the north west of the country on Sunday, with the army firing twice at rebel positions, army spokesman Colonel Blagoje Markovski said.

The rebels, who want broader rights for Macedonia's two million ethnic Albanians, have been fighting the troops for weeks.

After repeatedly urging civilians to leave the area and make room for an all-out offensive against the rebels, the government has accused the rebels of using the local population as a "human shield."

Williamson told the Associated Press news agency that Red Cross teams have found that many people were remaining in their villages because of "a strong sense of solidarity, which seems to increase as time goes on."

President and soldiers
Trajkovski, right, toured the front lines on Saturday  

But she added: "It is also possible that there is some pressure by the (ethnic Albanian) armed groups on the civilians to stay" as a safeguard against a government attack.

"We can't say this (pressure) is a fact, but we can't exclude the possibility."

A few thousand have fled from the north, crossing the border into Yugoslavia's neighbouring Kosovo province, and about 250 moved south to the government-controlled town of Kumanovo.

In a bid to find a political solution to the fighting, major Slav and ethnic Albanian parties formed a unity government last weekend.

The government has pledged to crush the rebels it accuses of trying to divide the country to gain control of a large piece of Macedonia.

The rebels remain entrenched in several villages north of the capital Skopje despite repeated efforts by troops to flush them out.

President Boris Trajkovski toured army front lines on Saturday, pledging to resolve the crisis caused by the insurrection "both politically and militarily."

Shortly after Trajkovski left the area, distant machine-gun fire resounded, followed by the thunder of about 20 detonations of heavy artillery. An overnight lull extended through Sunday morning.

The Macedonian government initially threatened to "eliminate" the rebels unless they accepted a Thursday deadline to give up their armed struggle.

Intense pressure from the West prompted the government to later promise restraint.

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