Macedonia forces fire on Albanian rebels after attack

SKOPJE, Reuters

Macedonian forces fired on ethnic Albanian guerrilla positions with tanks and artillery on Wednesday, despite an earlier commitment to hold fire to allow trapped civilians to escape the northern battle zone.

Army spokesman Blagoja Markovski said the army was responding to fire from rebel forces who attacked with mortars and machine guns.

A Reuters photographer near the northern village of Matejce saw heavy fighting around the village mosque. On Wednesday morning the Macedonian army said it would hold fire to allow humanitarian agencies to facilitate the evacuation of thousands of mostly ethnic Albanian civilians.

Around 8,000 people have fled to the village of Lipkovo, 25 km (15 miles) north of Skopje, from the surrounding hills where the army has been blasting suspected rebel positions in an effort to stamp out a five-month-old insurgency.

The government has accused the guerrillas of using civilians as human shields.

But local ethnic Albanian community leaders said despite dwindling food supplies the civilians had stayed put, saying they feared mistreatment by Macedonian security forces.

“The offer of the Macedonian government was not accepted by the people here because it does not provide security guarantees,” the mayor of Lipkovo Husamedin Halili told Reuters by telephone.

“The government did not give assurances that men will not be separated from the women and beaten at the police station.”

The government’s offer to civilians followed an agreement brokered on Tuesday by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana between coalition parties from the Balkan country’s Slav majority and large ethnic Albanian population.

It offered the civilians safe passage to the neighboring Albanian dominated Yugoslav republic of Kosovo if they wished to go.

Ethnic Albanian leaders said a temporary halt in hostilities was a condition for their entering the agreement which swept aside a controversial peace pact they had signed with rebel leaders a week ago and threatened to wreck the coalition.