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Rebels, Troops Clash Around Tetovo

July 23, 2001

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TETOVO, Macedonia (AP) _ In a major breach of a cease-fire, ethnic Albanian militants battled government forces in Macedonia’s second-largest city Monday, just days after the collapse of high-level talks aimed at averting a civil war.

Rebels took Tetovo’s soccer stadium and were within 50 yards of government troops trying to keep them from the city’s center, a senior police official said on condition of anonymity.

At least four civilians were wounded, one of them seriously, the official said. Both sides traded medium to heavy infantry fire, coupled with exchanges of rifle grenades and machine-gun fire.

Macedonian troops also fired a number of howitzer shells and mortar bombs on rebel positions, and the militants answered with mortar fire. At least three rebel mortar shells landed in or around the army barracks in the city.

Scores of cars packed mostly with women, children and elderly residents were seen fleeing Tetovo in the direction of Skopje, the capital. But although downtown Tetovo was tense, shops remained open on the outskirts of the city, where there was an air of normalcy.

``There’s ongoing shooting with very high intensity,″ Tetovo Mayor Murtezan Ismaili said. ``One bullet hit my office, right next to my secretary. She’s not injured.″

A rebel commander from Tetovo, who demanded anonymity, said: ``We were provoked by Macedonian forces. We’re fighting back.″

Police sources said there was also an exchange of gunfire near the toll station on a main highway linking Tetovo to several towns in western Macedonia.

Despite the violence in Tetovo, the majority Macedonians and ethnic Albanians were expected to continue low-level peace talks aimed at preventing a full-scale conflict.

The militants launched their insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for ethnic Albanians, who account for up to a third of Macedonia’s 2 million people. The government contends they are trying to carve up the country.

President Boris Trajkovski met Monday with James Pardew, the U.S. troubleshooter for the Balkans, and his French counterpart, Francois Leotard, to ``discuss the agenda and modalities of future talks,″ a senior Western diplomat who asked not to be named told The Associated Press.

In a joint statement issued Monday afternoon, Pardew and Leotard said they ``strongly condemn any use of violence.″

``We urge those responsible for these actions to respect the cease-fire decided on July 5,″ they said. ``Violence is unacceptable and does nothing to further the cause of the people in this region. It could only undermine the peace process while the political talks are still ongoing.″

Zehir Bekteshi of the influential Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity said ethnic Albanian parties were ready for a fresh round of negotiations.

``I hope the talks will become more serious, but now the responsibility is on the Macedonians. They have to make the move,″ Bekteshi said, referring to Macedonian leaders’ rejection last week of a Western-backed peace proposal.

But despite hopes that high-level talks would resume, sources close to the talks said only experts, and not key leaders, would continue the discussions.

A draft peace proposal rejected last week retains Macedonian as the primary official language, but proposes Albanian as a second official language in some areas _ a key ethnic Albanian demand.

The language issue remained the main sticking point, with Macedonians remaining opposed to any suggestion that Albanian become an ``official″ language.

Macedonians also oppose a proposal to allow municipalities, including those with an ethnic Albanian majority, to select their own police chiefs, even though the chief would have to be nominated by the interior minister.

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