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Macedonian army pounds village

President Trajkovski says the talks are "completely deadlocked"  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- The Macedonian army has resumed its bombardment of a key village held by Albanian guerrillas.

Helicopter gunships, tanks and mortars were deployed on Friday in a dawn strike against rebel positions in Aracinovo despite widespread efforts to sustain an 11-day-old truce.

Mi-24 helicopters swooped in on the village, which is 10 km (six miles) from Skopje, firing repeatedly at the area -- from where rebels have threatened to shell Macedonia's capital and its airport.

Colonel Blagoja Markovski said the action was aimed at "crushing and destroying terrorists."

A rebel leader known as Commander Hohxa told the Associated Press three civilians were killed and many were wounded, including one rebel fighter. There has been no independent confirmation of the casualties.

He said: "I'm warning the government if they want war they're going to get one. We will defend ourselves."

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Talks in Skopje to hammer out a peace deal intended to persuade the rebels to disarm are deadlocked, despite a NATO offer to send troops to Macedonia to help collect weapons as soon as political agreement can end fighting in the republic.

European Union envoy Javier Solana ended a flying peace mission on Thursday saying he was optimistic that the drive to negotiate an end to the four-month-old Albanian insurgency could be revived before the rebel ceasefire expires next Wednesday.

NATO and the U.S. say they are "hopeful" that a political settlement can be reached, although Washington has still not agreed to take part in a disarmament force, Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Thursday.

Powell was speaking after talks at the State Department with visiting NATO Secretary-General George Robertson.

"We of course talked about Macedonia. We are hopeful the political process will start to pick up some speed and momentum and move forward," Powell told reporters.

He said the U.S. had taken part in the NATO decision to make contingency plans for deploying Western troops in Macedonia to disarm the ethnic Albanian guerrillas who are fighting for more rights for their community.

NATO says it would deploy such a force only if a political settlement can be reached in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Powell added: "But we have not got to the point of actual U.S. participation in such an effort. We haven't made a contribution yet.

"There are many ways in which we can make a contribution, but that's not gone any further than that."

The issue of which countries would supply troops required for a disarmament mission in Macedonia will be decided at a NATO conference which will probably take place next week, Robertson told CNN.

Asked if such a mission could work without U.S. troop involvement, Robertson avoided a direct response, saying there should be balance among members of the alliance.

"It is important that there is a proper, wide balance of troops that come, so that they don't all come from one country," he said.

"This is a NATO mission and NATO means that the countries in NATO should be involved."

Solana arrived in Skopje on a brief visit to encourage leaders to keep talking, after Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said the week-old process was "totally deadlocked."

"I think we will be able to solve the problem," Solana said. "I think that we, all of us, will move only forward."

"We are talking and we will be able to make an agreement," said Imer Imeri, a key ethnic Albanian leader. "First we will start with easier subjects and then we will follow to more difficult ones."

• Macedonian government

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