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NATO slams offensive in Macedonia

Houses in the village of Aracinovo were damaged in the shelling
Houses in the village of Aracinovo were damaged in the shelling  

ARACINOVO, Macedonia -- NATO Secretary General George Robertson has denounced renewed fighting between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels as "complete folly."

As government troops engaged in a day-long bombardemnt of a key village held by ethnic Albanian rebles, the NATO chief demanded that the "madness" stop.

The latest offensive spells the end of the troubled 11 day ceasefire -- and comes as political leaders try to save the deadlocked peace talks.

CNN's Juliette Terzieff said: "The fresh offensive undermines the efforts of Western diplomats to avert a war in this small Balkan nation."

A rebel leader known as Commander Hohxa said that three civilians were killed and many wounded, including one rebel fighter, in Friday's attack.

He accused the Macedonian army of breaking the week-old truce and promised to fight back.

"I'm warning the government if they want war they're going to get one," he said by telephone from Aracinovo. "We will defend ourselves."

The Associated Press reported that hundreds of refugees were fleeing from Macedonia into Kosovo on Friday.

The army attacked positions in and around the village of Aracinovo -- from where rebels had threatened to launch their own assault on the capital, Skopje.

The assault came 11 days into a fragile ceasefire and as political leaders were attempting to inject some impetus into deadlocked peace talks.

Artillery set a four-story house in Aracinovo on fire, blanketing the eastern part of the village with heavy gray smoke.

Sporadic machine-gun fire and grenade explosions could be heard from rebel-held areas throughout Friday morning, the Associated Press reported.

Mi-24 helicopters swooped on the village, which is 10 km (six miles) from Skopje, firing repeatedly at the area.

Robertson said. "New outbreaks of violence, from whichever side, are madness at this sensitive time."

The European Union and NATO are currently engaged in a cliffhanger bid to broker a political deal to avert civil war.

"This help is being undermined and threatened by this unacceptable resort to violent action," the NATO chief added.

Macedonia said it had launched the assault to "eliminate" the Albanian National Liberation Army from Aracinovo, a village which is practically a suburb of Skopje.

Robertson urged Macedonian political leaders to "get serious about producing a political solution ... and to focus urgently on producing an agreement."

"This is no time for half measures on the political side or time-wasting posturing. The people need their leaders to immediately chart the way to a peaceful future," he said.

He said Macedonia was "on the brink of bloody civil war." Without directly blaming the Macedonian security forces for Friday's resumption of hostilities, Robertson said "the breach of two unilateral declarations of military restraint put in place is deeply regrettable."

European Union foreign ministers have invited Macedonian government and party leaders to a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday at which they have said they expect to see a peace settlement in writing.

This would pave the way for a NATO force of 3,000-5,000 troops to collect the arms of the NLA forces, surrendered voluntarily as part of the pact which would offer them amnesty.

But political negotiations have broken down over Albanian demands for a new constitution giving them a veto on all major decisions by the state -- a positions ethnic Macedonians say amounts to partition.

Macedonia, a republic of just two million people, is about the size of the U.S. state of Vermont.

• Macedonian government

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