- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

SHIPKOVICA, Macedonia Macedonia's president declared yesterday that his government would "neutralize and eliminate" ethnic Albanian rebels, spurning the insurgents' offer of a cease-fire as an army deadline for their surrender expired.

The midnight deadline passed with no immediate sign that the military had begun its threatened all-out assault. But moments earlier, after meeting with his top officials, President Boris Trajkovski issued a brief statement that the government had to "neutralize and eliminate" the rebels.

"It is necessary that the Macedonian army take control of the Macedonian side of the border" with Yugoslavia, he said, and that negotiations for a peaceful settlement were still possible but only through parliament and other established institutions.

He ruled out direct talks with the rebels. Ali Ahmeti, the political head of the National Liberation Army, had offered a cease-fire five hours earlier in a taped television broadcast in neighboring Kosovo.

"After the end of the operations to neutralize the armed groups of extremists, a political dialogue should begin among all legitimate political parties to open up questions regarding ethnic relations and finding solutions within the existing legal framework," Mr. Trajkovski said.

The Macedonian army on Tuesday night gave the rebels 24 hours to surrender completely or leave the country, or face an all-out counteroffensive.

In his television broadcast, Mr. Ahmeti said: "We, the general staff of the National Liberation Army, announce a unilateral cease-fire and we open the road for dialogue so heads can cool down and to find the best solution."

He said the cease-fire offer was open-ended, but warned that in case of attack the more than four-week struggle would continue.

"In case our positions are threatened by our opponents, then all our forces will be on the move and the conflict would widen," he said. "We have repeated constantly and will repeat again that we are for dialogue. We are not for a war that would create rivers of blood between two nations, because the reason for dialogue would be lost in that case."

Earlier yesterday, a rebel commander who gave his name only as Sokoli told local media in Kosovo that the insurgents had no intention of surrendering.

Macedonian army sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the military had spotted a "huge group" of Albanian insurgents on the Kosovo border apparently preparing to cross into Macedonia.

Above the hills of Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city where the fighting has been concentrated, the rebels showed no sign of bending. Fighters toting submachine guns took up positions in the hills heading down toward the city. Felled trees blocked the road leading from there to Shipkovica, one of the rebel strongholds.

A Macedonian soldier was wounded last night from shots fired from the Kosovo side of the border, the Macedonian government said. Earlier in the day, in a sign that the conflict could spill over to the Macedonian capital, a police officer was shot and killed when a group of policemen were attacked in the Albanian quarter of Skopje.

Before news of the cease-fire offer, some villagers, mostly women and children, set out on foot toward Tetovo, anticipating trouble after the deadline ended. Others boarded up windows with metal sheeting and wood, determined to stay.

"We have decided to die in these houses if that is what is to be," said Nejo, a villager who refused to give his last name. "We are not for blood. We are not for weapons. We are just for a dialogue to reach a solution."

Shipkovica residents, hearing of the proffered cease-fire through battery-powered radios, expressed doubt this would be the end of fighting.

"We don't trust the Slavs," said Kadri Kadria. "This isn't something that is going to be resolved quickly."

As night fell, those who could sought out basements for shelter. More than 60 people crowded one cellar no larger than 24 square yards, sitting on rugs and carpets.

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