- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

TETOVO, Macedonia NATO military sources questioned the Macedonian army's ability to confront ethnic Albanian rebels as a threatened government offensive failed to materialize yesterday.
Government forces marked the end of a unilateral cease-fire by shelling rebel positions around the city of Tetovo and fighting erupted near the capital, Skopje.
But senior British officials in London expressed concern that the army was not capable of the campaign required to contain and dislodge the National Liberation Army (NLA) guerrillas, who have dug into the hills north of Tetovo.
The officials said there was a danger the government will overreact to the activities of the NLA, which had an absolute maximum of 800 men and, while hard to dislodge, was not posing a particularly aggressive threat.
"The prime aim is to stop what is at present a limited insurgency becoming an all-out civil war in Macedonia," one source said.
"But the Macedonian army is not the most sophisticated army and is not capable of carrying out a sophisticated counter-insurgency campaign. We are concerned there might be a backlash."
The government had given the rebels until midnight on Wednesday to surrender or withdraw. Otherwise the army would begin an offensive to eliminate them.
Instead there was a resumption of the heavy shelling of NLA positions in the hills surrounding Tetovo, an assault that has continued since the fighting began nine days ago.
But government forces demonstrated a marked reluctance to move against the NLA. Although relatively lightly armed, the rebels have an overwhelming advantage in terrain.
Any advance by Macedonian troops will have to overcome formidable barriers. They will have to climb through densely wooded hills which provide excellent cover for the guerrillas and along winding roads which have been blocked by felled trees.
The killing of two Albanians, said to be civilians, in Tetovo yesterday increased the tension in the city, whose inhabitants are mainly Muslim ethnic Albanians.
Fighting which began late Wednesday night around the village of Gracani, 5 miles northwest of Skopje, continued through most of yesterday.
The NLA said it attacked a police station in the village and killed five members of the Macedonian security services. Government forces, who were attacking the rebels with machine guns and mortars, said their only casualty was one man wounded.
Around Tetovo, the government shelled the villages of Sipkovica, Selce, and suspected rebel entrenchments close by.
They used heavy artillery, including cannons from tanks stationed near the city. But the shelling seemed impotent in comparison to the threats made by the government in preceding days.
Villagers in the settlements being hit hid in basements and other sheltered positions.
The most sustained shellfire, which lasted about half an hour, caused panic, with women and children crying and screaming. But there were no reports of casualties.
The NLA fighters are situated within sandbagged strongholds and trenches. They have admitted to only one of their number dead since the fighting began.
The Macedonian government and the country's majority Slavic, Orthodox Christians took heart earlier in the week when they acquired the services of three Ukrainian helicopter crews flying Soviet-era Mi-24 helicopters.
The machines had previously been used to carry supplies for peacekeepers of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (Kfor) between Skopje and the city of Pristina in Kosovo. They are reported to have been converted for a combat role with machine guns and missile launchers mounted on them.
Kfor personnel believe the Mi-24s and three government Mi-16 helicopters, also of Soviet vintage, will form part of any concerted government assault on rebel positions. They substantially increase the Macedonians' mobility and firepower.


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