Fighting heavy near rebel stronghold, dozens reported dead

VAKSINCE, Macedonia, AP

Troops cautiously moved into a rebel stronghold Friday after artillery and helicopter gunships pounded the village. Government officials denied reports of dozens of civilians killed but said ethnic Albanian insurgents suffered heavy casualties.

The move on Vaksince was part of a major government offensive unleashed Thursday meant to push the rebels out of a string of highland villages close to Macedonia’s border with Kosovo.

But the insurgents appeared to have fight remaining in them. State radio reported a fierce attack on a police station in nearby Matejce, which sent nearby residents fleeing.

At Vaksince, puffs of smoke rose from the village center, marking detonations of army artillery shells, and heavy machine-gun fire punctuated the boom of the cannons. The village also was raked by rocket and cannon fire from two helicopter gunships.

By noon, the mosque’s slender tower was toppled, and government troops were firing mortar rounds _ normal procedure ahead of an infantry onslaught. Small arms fire was heard from neighboring villages.

Commenting on unconfirmed reports of up to 60 civilians killed by recent fighting in the region, a police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the likelihood of dozens of deaths. But he denied they were innocent victims, calling them “terrorists” — insurgents dressed as civilians.

Col. Blagoja Markovski, an army spokesman, also denied civilians were killed, but said: “There are plenty of casualties among the terrorists — I don’t know how many, and I don’t even want to count them.”

He suggested army or elite police units had moved into the village, saying “mopping up” had begun.

Up to 2,000 refugees crossed into Serbia at Miratovac, close to the Macedonian border, said U.N. refugee agency officials in Geneva.

Hundreds more congregated on a field at Tabanovce, just a few kilometers from Vaksince. Government troops separated women, children and elderly men from men of fighting age, but provided them all with first aid, water and other necessities.

Bujar Alili, one of the refugees, spoke of days of fear spent in a cellar to escape government shelling.

“There were approximately 60 of us,” he told a reporter. “We did not have enough water.”

The government has spoken of thousands of civilians being held by the rebels as human shields, something both the insurgents and evacuated civilians have previously denied.

But Alili and another man, Ibrahim Sejdiji, both spoke of “armed men with guns” forcing them to stay.

In Skopje, the capital, government officials sought to avert political crisis caused by revelations Thursday that ethnic Albanian parties in the government coalition secretly negotiated a peace deal with the insurgents.