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Three Killed on Macedonian Border

March 4, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ An ethnic Albanian rebellion in Macedonia intensified Sunday, with police saying government troops were battling hundreds of guerrillas in two border villages and on rugged mountain slopes.

Three Macedonian army soldiers were killed, including two whose vehicle hit a land mine near the village of Tanusevci, a stronghold of the insurgents 20 miles north of the capital, Skopje. The third died nearby, hit by sniper fire.

Despite international and Macedonian efforts to contain the violence, the fighting has spread to the village of Malina, just east of Tanusevci, and to nearby Mt. Kodra Pura, according to a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. About 200 rebels were battling government troops, he said.

``It’s a real war,″ said Hamdi Hasani, mayor of the Kosovo border village of Debele, within shouting distance of Tanusevci. He said sporadic exchanges of gunfire increased by late morning into prolonged fire fights. Heavy weapons were being used, he added, with some rounds falling inside Kosovo.

Fighting ended as nightfall approached. Macedonian authorities announced a partial mobilization of reservists for border guard duty late Sunday.

Border crossings to Kosovo that had been closed for much of the day were reopened, but only to Macedonian citizens wanting to leave the province of Serbia, Yugoslavia’s largest republic.

The latest surge of fighting around Kosovo has raised fears of another major crisis that could threaten the whole region, less than two years after NATO and the United Nations moved into Kosovo.

The fighting could be an attempt to provoke Macedonian troops into a massive response that would potentially claim innocent lives of ethnic Albanian villagers in the region. The guerrillas might be hoping that could radicalize Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians, who make up nearly 25 percent of the country’s two million people.

Hours after the fighting died down, Macedonian Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim announced an overnight ``action to contain the crisis,″ in coordination with NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo. He did not elaborate.

NATO’s mandate, however, restricts its activity in Kosovo. The role of the peacekeepers would likely be to maintain security along Kosovo’s border to prevent fighting from spreading and guerrilla reinforcements from crossing into Macedonia.

Kerim said Macedonia was demanding an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council and the establishment of a buffer zone within Kosovo along the Macedonian border.

Macedonia’s president, Boris Trajkovski, held an urgent meeting with defense officials and several ambassadors of NATO countries, including U.S. Ambassador Michael Einik and his British counterpart, Mark Dickenson.

Einik condemned the insurgent campaign as ``aggression ... that is coming into Macedonia and threatens stability.″ He said that the United States was helping authorities in Macedonia coordinate an anti-insurgent response with NATO.

A dozen U.S. Army humvees crowding Debele streets attested to the increased American observer presence in the village. Watching from the air were two Blackhawk helicopters, along with an unmanned spy plane.

From Debele, two plumes of smoke could be seen rising from Tanusevci.

Ethnic Albanian insurgents have launched twin offensives south of Kosovo into Macedonia, and east of Kosovo into a buffer zone with Serbia. The two conflicts both appear to be sparked by insurgents in heavily ethnic Albanian areas in apparent hopes of joining with Kosovo as part their ultimate goal of independence. Fighters in both conflicts are thought to be aided from Kosovo.

Reflecting that three-way linkage, Kosovo’s NATO and United Nations heads _ Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu and Hans Haekkerup _ arrived in Skopje and went into an emergency meeting with top government officials.

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