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Macedonia attacks rebel forces

Macedonian offensive
Villagers watch the Macedonian offensive  

VAKCINCE, Macedonia -- Macedonian forces are clashing with ethnic Albanian rebels along the country's border with Kosovo.

Macedonian helicopters fired rockets near Vakcince in a new offensive against rebels after two troops were killed and one captured in an ambush near the village.

People in 11 villages close to the nearby city of Kumanovo had been earlier ordered to evacuate, Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski told CNN.


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Macedonian security officials said they had also told rebels to "put down their weapons and surrender" and "not to forcefully seize local inhabitants."

But army spokesman Gjordji Trendafilov told the Associated Press news agency that the rebels were holding thousands of villagers as human shields.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski told CNN: "These people don't care about killing innocent civilians. They are not rebels, they are terrorists.

"But we have exercised the utmost restraint in tackling them."

The rebels have called for a ceasefire in the fighting and urged Trajkovski to open negotiations with them, but the government has refused.

The country's two main parties, representing both the Slav and ethnic Albanian communities, have appealed for calm.

State radio said the rebels had claimed the area around Vakcince as their "liberated zone."

The military manoeuvres come in the wake of increased tension around the village of Vakcince after eight soldiers were killed over the weekend.

An ambush on Thursday claimed the lives of two more when their armoured vehicle was attacked as it returned from a routine border patrol. A third soldier was captured while others managed to escape.

Ethnic Slavs have responded to attacks on Macedonian forces by damaging the property and businesses of ethnic Albanians.

A woman surveys damaged ethnic Albanian shops in Bitola  

A curfew had been imposed on the city of Bitola late on Wednesday, the scene of some of the worst rioting.

The latest military action came after Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski held talks with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House in Washington.

Trajkovski told CNN on Thursday that he had urged Bush to maintain U.S. forces in the region.

He added: "I has excellent talks with President Bush and told him any withdrawal of U.S. troops would have a negative effect on Macedonia. A U.S. presence is indispensable."

He said he had told Bush that his government had a strong commitment for Macedonia to be a part of NATO, and that remained its strategic goal.

The United States has issued a statement in which it condemned the killings of the two Macedonian soldiers and added: "We also condemn the holding of hostages... by the so-called National Liberation Army, which has threatened civilians and deliberately puts civilians into jeopardy."

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U.S. State Department

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