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Mountain battle in Macedonia

Macedonian tank
A Macedonian Army tank drives through the recently captured village of Opae  


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Fierce clashes have again broken out in Macedonia after one of the heaviest days of fighting for weeks.

Ethnic Albanian rebels fighting in the north of the country launched a mortar attack on government forces who responded with artillery fire.

But on another Balkans battlefront, ethnic Albanian rebels have agreed to demilitarise a buffer zone between Kosovo and southern Serbia.

The Yugoslav army is due to re-enter the zone -- originally created by NATO in 1999 as part of the peace deal to end the Kosovo conflict -- on Thursday.

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The leader of a key rebel ethnic Albanian rebel group agreed to disband and demobilise on Monday. But hundreds of other rebels have vowed to fight on.

In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, troops exchanged fire with ethnic Albanian rebels on a mountain peak early on Tuesday.

Army spokesman Colonel Blagoja Markovski told The Associated Press that the rebels shelled government positions with mortars on Mount Popova Sapka, above the north-western town of Tetovo.

"We responded with artillery and destroyed the terrorist group," Markovski said. He did not specify casualties.

Markovski said that on Monday the army made tentative gains in clashes with ethnic Albanian insurgents in northern villages where thousands of civilians remain trapped as the army continues its offensive.

Markovski told The Associated Press that a major rebel position with 15 entrenched insurgents and an ammunition depot were "destroyed" in an onslaught backed by helicopter gunships and tanks.

The government has expressed concern for trapped civilians, saying they are being used as human shields by the militants to stave off a wide-scale offensive.

The insurgents reject those allegations, saying those who have remained wanted to express solidarity with the militants.

Defence Ministry spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov said at least 1,000 civilians remained in the besieged village of Otlje.

Some 6,000 are believed stranded in nearby Lipkovo and undetermined numbers remain in other villages in the conflict area.

During lulls in the fighting, the International Red Cross has managed to evacuate hundreds of women, children and elderly, and deliver aid to those civilians still in villages.

In Serbia, there were conflicting reports over whether a key ethnic Albanian rebel leader had been arrested.

Yugoslav officials said Muhamet Xhemajli, known as Commander Rebel, had been arrested by KFOR, the U.N. sponsored Kosovo Force. But KFOR denied there had been any arrest.

Xhemajli was the only ethnic-Albanian rebel leader operating between Kosovo and Serbia who refused to disband and disarm his force ahead of the entry of the government forces into the final part of the zone on Thursday.







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