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Macedonia launches 'final operation'

Macedonian soldiers
Macedonian forces have been trying to flush the rebels from the hills surrounding Tetovo.  

TETOVO, Macedonia -- Macedonia has launched a fierce offensive to crush ethnic Albanian rebels, pounding the hills north of Tetovo with shells and rockets.

A convoy of armoured vehicles was seen leaving Tetovo early on Sunday, heading towards the ethnic Albanian village of Gajre, 4 kilometres (2 1/2 miles) outside the centre of Tetovo.

CNN correspondent Chris Burns said a government source had confirmed that Sunday's attack was a "resumption of the final operation" to flush out the rebels.

A day earlier rebels and Macedonian forces exchanged fire on several occasions.

Macedonian helicopters fired rockets in a sweep on Saturday outside the centre of Tetovo, the country's second-largest city.


CNN's Chris Burns: Heavy firing as Macedonia's 'final operation' resumes

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CNN's Chris Burns reports on the rise in tension between the Macedonian army and rebel forces

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CNN's Patricia Kelly reports on European leaders meeting in Stockholm and their focus on Macedonia

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CNN's Christiane Amanpour interviews Boris Trajkovski on the political and social climates in Macedonia

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CNN's Christiane Amanpour interviews Arben Xhaferi on Albanian rebels in Macedonia

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The helicopters were MI-24 attack helicopters acquired just a day earlier from Ukraine.

The helicopters flew over Mount Sar Planina, the focus of attacks southwest of the city's centre, firing several rockets. It was not immediately clear what they were targeting or whether anyone was wounded.

The helicopter attack came a few hours after two shells apparently fired from rebel positions hit a Slavic neighbourhood near a police checkpoint, spraying shrapnel through a cobblestone alley and injuring four people.

Local residents pointed to craters caused by the attack, screaming: "Terrorists! Terrorists!"

Using the same label, police spokesman Stevo Pendarovski said "terrorist groups" in the hills above Tetovo were responsible for the attack.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski had earlier suggested that the military had not yet carried out its threatened operation to "neutralize and eliminate" the insurgents.

He said the former Yugoslav republic's poorly equipped military was rapidly arming itself and biding its time.

"The (political) decision has been made. Now it is up to the military to judge when conditions are right for a successful operation," Georgievski said.

"It could be one hour, or one day, or one week -- it is completely up to the military."

The rebels said the numbers of fighters in the mountains were growing.

Imer Imeri, head of the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, told the German weekly Der Spiegel. "By now they are also finding broad support among the population."

"I fear that if our demands continue to be ignored, a major offensive will develop this spring and the Albanian population will also take up arms," he was quoted as saying.

Macedonia's President Boris Trajkovski has told CNN that he plans to defeat rebels by isolating them politically and militarily.

In an exclusive interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, he said he was happy that the international community was supporting Macedonia and condemning the rebels.

And he expressed confidence that the assistance of KFOR in preventing border incursions from Kosovo and the support of the European Union and other "international structures" would prove effective.

He said: "The only way to neutralise the rebels is to develop an isolation strategy combining political means and military means.

"We have to get all the international community and our allies and friends supporting us.

"We have to protect our interests and also protect any possibility that the situation can spill over."

The president refuted suggestions that the Albanian population of Macedonia are on the side of the rebels.

Although the rebels in Macedonia say their aim is more rights for ethnic Albanians within Macedonia, the government accuses them of seeking independence and drawing on neighbouring Kosovo for fighters and weapons.

Germany's Defence Ministry said it plans to send about 100 paratroopers to Tetovo to shield its soldiers based there to perform supply duties for the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Britain, meanwhile, said it would send troops to join in beefed-up controls along the border with Kosovo to help prevent arms from being smuggled to the rebels in Macedonia, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said on Saturday.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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