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Macedonia issues rebel ultimatum

Tetovo
Smoke billows over the northern part of Tetovo following clashes on Monday  


TETOVO, Macedonia -- The Macedonian government is threatening to launch an offensive against ethnic Albanian rebels unless they withdraw from Tetovo.

Clashes broke out between the rebels and government forces on Monday, violating a fragile 18-day ceasefire.

Western diplomats struggled to salvage peace talks as ethnic Albanian rebels battled government security forces in the worst fighting in months, reviving fears of full-scale civil war.

Fighting raged just outside the centre of Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city.

A police official said the militants seized control of the soccer stadium and were just a few metres from government positions.

Government spokesman Antonio Milososki said an 11-year-old girl was killed and six security force members were wounded. Macedonian television said at least 25 others were wounded.

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Colonel Blagoja Markovski said 22 Macedonian civilians were abducted by ethnic Albanian insurgents in villages around Tetovo.

The fighting, which eased at nightfall, was by far the most serious violation of a cease-fire brokered by NATO and the European Union that took effect July 5.

There was sniper fire and exchanges of small-arms and machine gun fire throughout the day around the sports stadium, where rebels had advanced on government lines.

"Today we have real war in Tetovo," a 38-year-old called Nuriman told Reuters in the eastern district of Drenovec. Tetovo's hospital director said 13 civilians had also been injured, along with five Macedonian troops.

Macedonian Defence Minister Vlado Buckovski warned the rebel National Liberation Army to withdraw from ground it has taken during the truce or face an all-out attack.

"If the terrorists do not retreat to their positions of July 5, there's no alternative but an offensive by the Macedonian security forces to restore the previous situation," he said.

A senior police official in Tetovo, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the rebels had taken the soccer stadium and were within 50 yards of government troops trying to keep them from the city centre.

"There's ongoing shooting with very high intensity," Tetovo Mayor Murtezan Ismaili told AP. "One bullet hit my office, right next to my secretary. She's not injured."

Shells were directed at villages in the mountains above Tetovo, from which the rebels have advanced.

Reuters reported fighting along the road to the Kosovo border.

South of the area, a Macedonian soldier patrolling the mountains bordering Albania was killed in an attack blamed on the NLA.

Monday's battle in Tetovo, the second in as many days, began while U.S. and European envoys were meeting President Boris Trajkovski in the capital Skopje, 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the west.

Talks on a peace deal which would give greater civil rights to Albanians stalled last week amid Macedonian criticism.

Rebels say their five-month campaign of violence, which has raised fears of all-out civil war, aims to end discrimination against Albanians.

But the Macedonian majority accuses the rebels of trying to seize ground and split the state.






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