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Macedonia tense ahead of funerals

Macedonia ambush
The soldiers were killed in an ambush on Wednesday  


TETOVO, Macedonia -- Tensions are high in Macedonia ahead of the funerals of 10 soldiers killed in an ambush by ethnic Albanian rebels .

The funerals come after a day of fighting between rebels and government forces further threatened hopes of a peace deal being signed.

The 10 soldiers, who died on the road between Skopje and the northwestern town of Tetovo on Wednesday, will be buried on Friday in their home town of Prilep in the south.

Fighting between troops and rebels continued throughout Thursday night, with reports of Sukhoi Su-25 jets being used for one of the first times during the six-month conflict.

A diplomat and witnesses told Reuters that two jets had dropped bombs on rebel-held areas northeast of Tetovo on Thursday night after ethnic Albanian soldiers' assaults on a city police station and barracks.

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An unnamed diplomat told Reuters: "This is a serious escalation of the fighting."

But a defence ministry source denied the jets had dropped bombs, saying they were merely flying over the area.

Tetovo, Macedonia's second largest city, was quiet in the early hours of Friday after fierce fighting had earlier left 12 people injured, including a six-year-old girl.

A crowd of about 200 Macedonians demonstrated outside parliament in Skopje on Thursday night, a day after an estimated 1,000 people attacked shops owned by ethnic Albanians in protest at the killings of the soldiers.

The fighting throws into the doubt the chances of a peace settlement being signed on Monday.

The deal, thrashed out between the government, ethnic Albanian politicians and European and Western envoys, would give the Albanians more civil rights.

It would officially recognise the Albanian language in towns where more than 20 percent of the population speak it, and give Albanians more representation in the country's police force.

European Union peace mediator Francois Leotard was quoted by The Associated Press as telling Europe-1 radio: "If the situation continues to deteriorate on the ground, what has been established and concluded on paper could be called into question."

About 3,500 NATO soldiers are on stand-by to go into the country and help disarm the rebels if the deal is signed.






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