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Soldiers killed in Macedonia blast

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A hooded Macedonian police officer on patrols in Tetovo  


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- At least eight Macedonian soldiers have been killed in a landmine explosion near the capital Skopje, a Macedonian army spokesman has said.

The blast occurred on the road between the villages of Ljubanci and Ljuboten, about five kilometres (three miles) from the outskirts of Skopje, when a convoy of army trucks ran over three landmines, the spokesman told Reuters.

Another six soldiers were wounded in Friday's explosion.

Fighting between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces erupted in the area soon afterwards.

Ethnic Albanian sources in Ljuboten told The Associated Press at least one house was levelled in the ethnic Albanian village, which was sealed off by government troops.

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A villager, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP government forces were using two helicopter gunships to shell the village, whose hundreds of residents were hiding in basements.

Meanwhile there were also reports early on Friday of fresh fighting around Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city.

The latest incidents come as Macedonian families in the southern town of Prilep prepared to bury 10 soldiers killed on Wednesday in a rebel ambush on the highway between Skopje and Tetovo.

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.

It was one of the first times Macedonia's newly acquired Sukhoi Su-25 jets had dropped bombs, a diplomat told Reuters, in what he called a "serious escalation" of the conflict.

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

Another diplomat said the planes appeared to have struck again on Friday morning, bombing the rebel stronghold of Radusa on Macedonia's northern border with Yugoslavia.

The fresh violence has cast doubt over whether a tentative peace plan could be signed on Monday as scheduled.

The rebel, codenamed Matoshi, told Reuters: "Now this is war. You can see they are not attacking our positions in the mountains but anywhere."

But speaking in Sofia, Bulgaria, earlier on Friday, U.S. envoy James Pardew said he was optimistic that despite the violence a peace deal would be signed as agreed to by Macedonia's rival parties.

"No one supports the Albanian extremists, certainly not the United States, nor any of our European allies," Pardew told AP.

"The use of force by the Albanian extremists in Macedonia is unacceptable and totally rejected by the United States."

Fierce fighting in Tetovo left 12 people injured, including a six-year-old girl, on Thursday.

European Union peace mediator Francois Leotard was quoted by AP 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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