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Peace Talks Spurned in Macedonia Government Sends Troops To Combat Guerrilla Uprising

By Richard Boudreaux
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- TETOVO, Macedonia

Fighting between security forces and ethnic-Albanian guerrillas resumed Thursday after a 24-hour lull as the Macedonian government spurned a rebel offer of peace talks and put the army in charge of a struggling anti-insurgency campaign.

Two suspected guerrillas were killed and four government troops were wounded in scattered confrontations as unilateral cease-fires on both sides ended, dashing faint hopes for a quick settlement of an armed conflict over ethnic minority rights.

For the first time since combat erupted here a month ago, the government sent paramilitary police officers into the hills above Tetovo, de facto capital of the country’s disaffected ethnic-Albanian minority, in an effort to flush guerrillas from at least six village strongholds.

“They have been provoking us for 34 days, and we are responding,” government spokesman Antonio Milososki said.

The battle moved briefly into Tetovo’s tense, mostly deserted streets when two Albanian men stopped their Suzuki compact at a police checkpoint. Television footage showed one man getting out of the car and cocking his arm as if to throw something at the police, who then opened fire, killing both men. Police said the would-be thrower died clutching a live grenade.

Macedonian police and soldiers said they came under attack at three points Wednesday night and Thursday along their country’s border with Kosovo, the separatist Serbian province where ethnic-Albanians are in the majority. Three soldiers and a policeman were reported wounded.

The heaviest border fighting was reported in Gracane, which appeared to be in rebel hands after a substantial guerrilla force entered from Kosovo before dawn Thursday.

The rebels say their National Liberation Army is a home-grown movement fighting for greater civil rights in Macedonia, where about one-quarter of the population is ethnic-Albanian.

Macedonian officials Thursday seized on the border clashes to back their claim that the insurgency is being run from Kosovo. They said the rebel aim is to carve off northern Macedonia and join it with Kosovo in an independent ethnic-Albanian state.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski instructed his army to take all necessary measures to control the border and crush the insurgency.

Rejecting peace talks with the rebel leaders, who had called a unilateral cease-fire, he ordered his forces to move against guerrilla-held villages. The attacks ended the government’s own cease-fire, which had been called to give civilians 24 hours to get out of harm’s way.

Trajkovski said negotiations on Albanian grievances, such as linguistic and job discrimination, were still possible -- but only through parliament and other established institutions of Macedonia’s multiethnic government.