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Macedonia army calls ceasefire

U.N. estimates that 33,000 refugees have fled to Kosovo
U.N. estimates that 33,000 refugees have fled to Kosovo  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Macedonia has called a temporary cease-fire in its military offensive against ethnic Albanian insurgents.

However, the rebels violated the cease-fire by shooting at a police vehicle on Monday night, injuring its six occupants.

A police source said four officers returning from a patrol were being treated for bullet wounds, while two were less seriously injured by the attack near the city of Tetovo, Reuters news agency said.

The ambush came despite an earlier agreement by the rebels to honour for 24 hours -- until noon GMT on Tuesday -- the halt in the fighting, which the government says was ordered to get humanitarian aid to civilians caught in the crossfire.

The development marks the first time that both sides had officially declared cease-fires at the same time since the conflict started in February.

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The cease-fire follows an earlier rebel threat to attack the capital, Skopje. However, officials from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia say the threat did not influence its decision.

Nikola Dimitrov, an adviser to President Boris Trajkovski, said the decision to halt the attacks was taken by Trajkovski, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and the defence and interior ministers.

Dimitrov did not specify how long the ceasefire was intended to last, he said it had been ordered at the behest of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Associated Press reported.

He said the government hoped the reprieve would allow a resumption of water supplies to a village near Kumanovo, 20 miles (33 km) northeast of the capital, Skopje, where ethnic Albanian rebels control a reservoir that serves the area's 100,000 residents, reports said.

Dimitrov said the cease-fire was also aimed at allowing food supplies to reach a rebel-held village in the north, where thousands of civilians are cowering in basements, afraid to chance an escape.

Shortly after dawn on Monday, Macedonian forces had resumed shelling of the rebel-held village of Lipkovo, in the Kumanovo region, despite a previous ultimatum from the insurgents to attack the capital unless the army halted its offensive.

Five civilians were injured -- one critically -- and another killed in the attack, according to ethnic Albanian rebels.

On Sunday, rebels took over the village of Aracinovo, an ethnically mixed town just five miles (8km) from the edge of the capital Skopje.

A rebel commander warned that unless the army ceased its attacks the insurgents would target strategic positions at "the airport, oil refineries, police stations in towns and other government installations."

The rebels said they were armed with 120 mm mortars and rockets. But with a maximum range of about five miles, it was unclear whether the rebels would be able to hit key targets in the city centre -- like the ministry of interior, defence, or the parliament.

But before calling its temporary cease-fire on Monday, the government warned residents of the capital to keep away from official buildings for the rest of the day.

Shops and cafes were reported to be less busy than usual on Monday, but elsewhere residents were seen walking past the parliament and other potential target sites -- apparently assured that they were beyond the range of rebel weaponry.

The seizure of Aracinovo triggered a further exodus of residents, many of whom have fled north to neighbouring Kosovo in the four months since the latest Balkan crisis erupted.

Welter of refugees

Astrid van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, based in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, estimated that 33,000 refugees have fled to Kosovo since the outbreak of hostilities in February.

More than 15,000 civilians have been trapped in villages in the conflict zone for weeks with no water or electricity and little food.

Macedonian troops
Macedonian troops attempt to protect Skopje from attack  

The ethnic Albanian rebels, many from Kosovo, say they are fighting for greater rights for a minority that comprises between a quarter and one third of Macedonia's two million people.

But the Macedonian government -- spearheaded by ethnic Slavs who make up most of the remaining population -- contend the fighters have an ulterior motive to break up Macedonia's multi-ethnic mosaic to further their vision of a Greater Albania. The recent skirmishing has also tested the resolve of Macedonia's multi-ethnic government of "national unity" formed in May at the behest of international mediators.

Western politicians and other observers fear that the fighting, left unchecked, could spiral into another Balkan bloodbath.

The destination of choice for many fleeing refugees -- Kosovo -- was itself the centre, in 1999, of an ethnic cleansing campaign against the dominant ethnic Albanian population by Yugoslav troops under the command of former president Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic was ousted in a popular uprising last October. Last month, Yugoslav troops were allowed for the first time to re-enter a key buffer zone in southern Kosovo imposed after NATO's bombing campaign, in June 1999.

A question mark also hangs over a tentative political solution put forward by Trajkovski on Friday and endorsed by politicians and European foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The peace proposal focuses on incentives for rebels to disarm, an overhaul of the armed forces and an acceleration of political reforms that could address the grievances of ethnic Albanians.

Solana met leaders of the main Macedonian and Albanian political parties in parliament in Skopje on Saturday as part of an EU drive to defuse the Balkan crisis.

• Macedonian Government
• European Union

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