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Thousands flee Macedonian offensive

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Up to 2,000 people have fled to Serbia as fighting intensifies between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels, says the U.N. refugee agency.

Macedonian authorities have reported major gains in their latest offensive to drive rebels out of a string of villages in the Kosovo border area.

Fighting on Friday focused on the rebel stronghold of Vakcince. Troops have shelled the town for a second day using artillery and helicopter gunships as they step up efforts to break the "rebel stronghold."

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CNN's Chris Burns: Criticism at Albanian leaders' agreement with rebels

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But there has been political turmoil after it emerged that ethnic Albanian parties in the country's new multi-ethnic emergency coalition government have been negotiating with the rebels.

Macedonia's national unity government was formed less than two weeks ago, drawing ethnic Albanian parties together with those of the majority Slavs, and had vowed to exclude the National Liberation Army from the political process.

CNN's Chris Burns, in Macedonia, says the fighting has been intense with artillery and machine gun fire and a helicopter gunship deployed.

The government has claimed to control most of Vakcince but Burns says the fierce fighting shows the rebels are fighting back.

The rebels deny the government has retaken part of the village.

Staff from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitoring a border crossing in northern Macedonia reported villagers arriving from Lojane and Vakcince on foot.

Some were pushing carts holding their possessions, spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.

Macedonian authorities have previously appealed with little success for civilians to leave the area -- and have claimed that NLA rebels are holding them as human shields, something which the rebels have denied.

Redmond said many civilians remained in the villages with independent reports that some support the rebels and others were afraid to leave amid the continued fighting.

The Red Cross said the continued shooting was making it impossible to enter shelled villagers to help the wounded and deliver medical supplies.

"We are in regular contact with the Macedonian army but so far it has not been possible to enter," Annick Bouvier of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

"We need a ceasefire, but so far it has not been possible to get this security guarantee. We want to get in to assess the situation and evacuate any injured."

A senior rebel commander called Sokoli told Reuters on Thursday that six civilians from one family had been killed when their basement shelter took a direct hit from a large calibre shell.

"Of course there is no way for us to confirm these reports without being there," Bouvier said.

Colonel Blagoja Markovski, a Macedonian army spokesman, denied civilians had been killed, but was quoted by AP as saying "There are plenty of casualties among the terrorists."

Diplomats and politicians confirmed on Thursday that a deal had been agreed earlier in the week by senior officials of ethnic Albanian parties in government and NLA commanders.

It would offer rebels an amnesty if they stop fighting and a veto over political decisions about ethnic Albanian rights.

Talks abandoned

Leaders of Slavic parties in the coalition have expressed outrage at what they called secret negotiations but, defying domestic and international condemnation, the leaders of Macedonia's two main ethnic Albanian parties have rejected demands to renounce the pact.

Army attack
The Macedonian army use helicopter gunships in their efforts to flush out rebels  

The leader of the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, Imer Imeri, suggested that the talks had at least tacit government approval, according to the Associated Press.

"The government was encouraging us to approach the NLA and we did it for peace," he was quoted as saying. "Peace is very near."

The head of the Democratic Party of Albanians, Arben Xhaferi, said his group had "never acted behind the government's back" and was not seeking to leave the coalition.

But Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski warned that he and the Slav parties could not continue to work with them unless they tore up the agreement.

And prime minister Ljubco Georgievski accused the parties of openly merging with the rebels. "Albanians are siding against (Slavic) Macedonians," he told Associated Press.

The furore has forced a senior envoy to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Robert Frowick, to leave the country with diplomats and government officials saying he had helped mediate the deal.

OSCE representative Carlo Ungaro said Frowick had been "acting on his own," according to AP.

Burns said the dispute threatened to split the government and divide the Balkan's nation even further.

Armed conflict broke out in February with the rebels saying they want more rights for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, where they make up as much as a third of the two million population.

The government accuses them of trying to grab land and unify it with Kosovo, which is also dominated by ethnic Albanians.

• Macedonian Government

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