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Rebels breach Macedonia truce

Fleeing villagers
Refugees flee Macedonia's northern conflict zone  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- A bilateral cease-fire in Macedonia showed signs of fraying on Tuesday, less than a day after it took effect.

The first joint truce in the four-month conflict between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Macedonian forces faced a crucial endurance test after reports that rebels had ambushed a Macedonian police patrol late Monday.

Four policemen were treated for bullet wounds after rebels fired on a police vehicle near the northwestern city of Tetovo, one of several northern flashpoints in ongoing ethnic skirmishing that has stirred Western fears of another Balkan bloodbath.

Two other policemen were less seriously injured by the attack near the city of Tetovo, Reuters news agency said.


Francois Stamm, International Red Cross: People are leaving before violence escalates

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Albanian rebels threaten retaliation. Correspondent Juliett Terzieff reports (June 10)

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Last week, a similar guerilla ambush near the site of Monday's attack claimed the lives of five Macedonian soldiers.

The ambush came despite an agreement by the rebels on Monday to honour for 24 hours -- until noon GMT on Tuesday -- an earlier halt in the fighting that the government says it ordered to get humanitarian aid to civilians caught in the crossfire.

The development marks the first time that both sides had officially declared cease-fires at the same time since the conflict started in February.

Meanwhile, 100 tons of relief aid destined for residents of the village of Lipkovo, near the northern city of Kumanovo were turned back by Macedonian forces, CNN reported.

Civilians on the ground showed little confidence that the cease-fire would hold.

Record exodus

On Monday, Reuters reported, more than 6,000 refugees streamed across the mountains into the neighbouring ethnic-Albanian dominated province of Kosovo, a part of southern Serbia that has been under United Nations administration since the end of a NATO bombing campaign in June 1999.

The flight was the largest since the conflict erupted in February, Reuters reported.

"Most of them were from parts of Skopje," Astrid van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR refugee agency was quoted as saying.

"There was general panic that the battle was about to explode."

To date, the crisis has triggered an exodus of more than 33,000 refugees, and trapped thousands of others in basement shelters with few or no medical, water or food supplies.

On Sunday rebels threatened to attack strategic targets in the capital, Skopje, such as the airport, oil refineries and government buildings.

However, officials from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia say the threat did not influence its decision to suspend its fire on Monday, casting the decision a as bid to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe by giving civilian relief supplies a chance to reach desperate civilians.

Nikola Dimitrov, an adviser to Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, did not specify how long the cease-fire was intended to last.

But he conceded that the initiative for the halt came largely from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union.

Dimitrov said the government hoped the reprieve would allow a resumption of water supplies to a village near Kumanovo, 20 miles (33 km) northeast of the capital, Skopje, where ethnic Albanian rebels control a reservoir that serves the area's 100,000 residents, reports said.

Dimitrov said the cease-fire was also aimed at allowing food supplies to reach a rebel-held village in the north, where thousands of civilians are cowering in basements, afraid to chance an escape.

Macedonian troops
Macedonian troops attempt to protect Skopje from attack  

Macedonian forces had resumed shelling of the rebel-held village of Lipkovo, in the Kumanovo region, shortly after dawn on Monday, despite a previous ultimatum from the insurgents to attack the capital unless the army halted its offensive.

Five civilians were injured -- one critically -- and another killed in the morning attack, according to ethnic Albanian rebels.

On Sunday, rebels took over the village of Aracinovo, an ethnically mixed town just five miles (8km) from the edge of the capital Skopje.

A rebel commander warned that unless the army ceased its attacks the insurgents would target strategic positions at "the airport, oil refineries, police stations in towns and other government installations."

The rebels said they were armed with 120 mm mortars and rockets. But with a maximum range of about five miles, it was unclear whether the rebels would be able to hit key targets in the city centre -- like the ministry of interior, defence, or the parliament.

But before calling its temporary cease-fire on Monday, the government warned residents of the capital to keep away from official buildings for the rest of the day.

Shops and cafes were reported to be less busy than usual on Monday, but elsewhere residents were seen walking past the parliament and other potential target sites -- apparently assured that they were beyond the range of rebel weaponry.

The ethnic Albanian rebels, many from Kosovo, say they are fighting for greater rights for a minority that comprises between a quarter and one third of Macedonia's two million people.

But the Macedonian government -- spearheaded by ethnic Slavs who make up most of the remaining population -- contend the fighters have an ulterior motive to break up Macedonia's multi-ethnic mosaic to further their vision of a Greater Albania. The recent skirmishing has also tested the resolve of Macedonia's multi-ethnic government of "national unity" formed in May at the behest of international mediators.

Uncertainty also hangs over a tentative political solution put forward by Trajkovski on Friday and endorsed by politicians and European foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The peace proposal focuses on incentives for rebels to disarm, an overhaul of the armed forces and an acceleration of political reforms that could address the grievances of ethnic Albanians.

Solana met leaders of the main Macedonian and Albanian political parties in parliament in Skopje on Saturday as part of an EU drive to defuse the Balkan crisis.

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