Clashes threaten Macedonia deal
SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Heavy fighting flared overnight between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces in Macedonia's second largest city less than 48 hours before a peace deal is set to be signed.
Tetovo, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the capital Skopje, came under heavy guerrilla attack on Saturday evening as hundreds of armed ethnic Albanian rebels targeted Macedonian forces.
As many as 200 heavily armed guerillas launched attacks against Macedonia police checkpoints and targeted the main road connecting the largely ethnic Albanian city to the capital, Skopje. Macedonian tanks and artillery returned fire against the rebel positions.
The Macedonian Slav majority government and ethnic Albanian minority are set to sign a peace agreement on Monday designed to end the six-month ethnic Albanian rebellion and lead to disarmament of the rebels. However, ongoing violence between the two sides threatens to sideline the tentative deal.
Heavy fire was also reported near the village of Radusa. State television broadcast footage of a separate effort to rescue an unspecified number of policemen surrounded by ethnic Albanian rebels in the mountains of northern Macedonia. Sukhoi SU-25 ground attack jets and army helicopter jets flew over the village of Radusa, state television pictures showed.
The rebels were supported by reinforcements from Kosovo, the mostly ethnic-Albanian populated, NATO-controlled province of neighbouring Yugoslavia, state television said.
The Macedonian government criticised NATO for allowing some 600 ethnic Albanian rebels to cross into its territory, reports said.
The flow of rebels, most of them soldiers according to Macedonian officials, coincides with the six-month long conflict's fiercest fighting in the north of the former Yugoslav republic around Radusa and Tetovo.
Macedonia filed a protest with KFOR -- NATO's force in Kosovo, assigned to guard the Kosovo-Macedonia border -- on Saturday, accusing it of letting hundreds of ethnic Albanian guerrillas cross over from Kosovo.
The escalation in fighting came as Macedonians mourned for seven of the 18 soldiers slain in attacks this week. Hundreds packed cemeteries in Skopje to bury the men, who were lauded as heroes for defending the country.
Ten soldiers died on Wednesday when rebel artillery hit a military convoy west of the capital. Another eight were killed in a land mine explosion on Friday.
The deaths prompted a demonstration on Friday in front of the U.S. Embassy in Skopje by protesters who accuse NATO of favouring the ethnic Albanian rebels.
Macedonia's ethnic Albanian militants took up arms in February saying they want more rights for their community, which accounts for a third of the country's population of 2 million. The Macedonians say the rebels simply want to seize a chunk of territory and call it their own.
Human Rights Watch accused the rebels on Saturday of torturing, sexually abusing and mutilating five ethnic Macedonian road workers abducted and released this week.
The human rights watchdog group told The Associated Press the road workers were beaten and had the initials of their names carved on their backs with a knife. More than a dozen other Macedonians are believed to still be in the hands of the rebels.
Elizabeth Andersen, the group's executive director for the Europe and Central Asia division, said: "We are deeply concerned about the safety of Macedonians abducted by the Albanian rebels in recent weeks."
She also demanded their immediate release and warned that the abductions by the rebels are "rapidly rising."
The tentative peace deal addresses many ethnic Albanian concerns by recognising their language in parts of the country where it is spoken by more than 20 percent of the population and improving education and police representation.
Some diplomats say the chances of the plan sticking look slim -- an amnesty has yet to be agreed, parliament is reluctant to ratify the deal and many rebels seem confident that the army will not be able to budge them.
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