Macedonian forces take villages
SKOPJE, Macedonia -- The Macedonian government has vowed to "kick out every last terrorist" after retaking two ethnic Albanian rebel-held villages.
Security forces retook Vakcince and Lojane both near the border with Serbia after weeks of heavy fighting, the government and rebels said on Saturday.
But government troops continued their offensive against the ethnic Albanian rebels in the region while the country's interior minister Ljube Boskovski said that "the terrorists will be expelled from Macedonian land."
He added: "There is no question about it."
Macedonian troops continued to bombard the ethnic Albanian rebels strongholds of Slupcane and Matejce, both about 30 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of the capital Skopje.
The army used helicopter gunships and heavy artillery to blast Slupcane while ground troops fired artillery shells.
The rebels responded with mortars, slightly injuring two soldiers, the Associated Press said.
Hundreds of fleeing villagers congregated on a field in Tabanovce, near Vakcince, after attempting to dodge the firing.
Earlier on Saturday, police reported in the nearby village of Matejce heavy mortar and sniper fire which injured one of their group, Boskovski said on state television.
Neither side in the conflict could give any civilian casualty figures, Reuters said.
CNN's Chris Burns travelled with Macedonian security forces into previously rebel-held Vakcince, saying it was a scene of devastation -- "a ghost town."
The government has said all civilians have been evacuated and Burns could see only a few farm animals left behind.
NLA rebels have occupied about 10 villages in the north-eastern Kumanovo area since May 3.
Concern for villagers
The rebels say they are seeking greater rights and recognition for Macedonia's minority ethnic Albanians. The government argues that they are terrorists bent on grabbing land and carving out an ethnic Albanian mini-state linked with Kosovo.
Civilians caught in the conflict continued to be the major concern said Burns, with up to 3,000 villagers having fled to the neighbouring Serbian province of Kosovo and thousands more remaining in the area.
The government maintained that the rebels had been holding civilians as "human shields."
Government troops separated refugee women, children and elderly men from men of fighting age but provided them all with first aid, water and other necessities.
AP quoted Bujar Alili, one of the refugees, telling of days of fear spent in a cellar in Slupcane to escape government shelling. There were approximately 60 of us," he told a reporter. "We did not have enough water."
The fighting continues against a background of political turmoil after revelations of a "peace deal" offering amnesty to the rebels negotiated by minority ethnic Albanian parties outraged their Slav partners in the emergency coalition government.
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