- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

GAJRE, Macedonia Government troops punched through rebel lines and moved into hillside villages yesterday, spraying houses with bullets as they spearheaded an offensive to push ethnic Albanian insurgents back from Macedonia's second-largest city, Tetovo.

While not claiming all-out victory, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said government forces were doing well, asserting that the thrust to "clear the terrain of terrorists … is being carried out successfully, and already key positions have been taken."

[Reuters news agency quoted Mr. Georgievski saying on Macedonian television that the operation "is going as planned and we have taken all key points."

[The French news agency Agence France-Presse quoted army spokesman Col. Blagoja Markovski saying troops had taken six villages that comprised the heart of the rebel territory Gajre, Llavce, Lisec, Drenok, Teke and Selce.]

In Washington, President Bush said he hoped U.S. and NATO efforts will prove effective in helping Macedonia quell the conflict.

"I'm hoping, of course, that the government is stable and we're able to seal off the border [with Kosovo] to prevent people and arms from getting to the rebels," Mr. Bush told reporters as he returned to the White House after a morning jog.

Macedonian troops led by seven armored personnel carriers and two tanks moved into the village of Gajre, in the hills just northwest of Tetovo, breaking through a rebel roadblock and driving back the insurgents.

Houses and cars were burning in the village, and bullets sent roof tiles flying as troops blasted houses suspected of harboring rebels. Two helicopters strafed the hillsides.

A man ran to free his cows from a burning barn. He then shot a thin stream of water from a garden hose on his barn and house, in a vain attempt to staunch the flames.

After the fighting ended, dozens of terrified villagers who had been hiding in a cellar surfaced and rushed into the thick forest around the village.

"Our operations gained intensity and are progressing according to plan," said Antonio Milososki, a government spokesman. "Several terrorist positions have been taken… . We will go on until the final takeover of all terrorist positions."

After taking Gajre, the troops regrouped and set up positions overlooking Llavce, another rebel-held village just north of Gajre.

Reporting another government success, state television said Macedonian troops also had taken Tetovo Kale, an ancient Turkish fortress cresting a hill that it said had been a rebel stronghold.

Two soldiers, one police officer and four civilians were slightly injured, Mr. Milososki said. Police spokesman Stevo Pendarovski said the four civilians were a family riding in a taxi that entered a combat area. The number of rebel casualties was not known.

In Skopje, the Macedonian capital, the national security adviser, Nikola Dimitrov, pledged that government troops would "do everything to protect the civilians."

"If this continues, I believe we are very much close to our aim of stopping militant terrorism and regaining our sovereignty," he said.

The fighting brought combatants into their closest quarters yet in the six-week conflict near Macedonia's border with the Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians constitute a majority.

NATO, which has policed Kosovo since deposing former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's troops in 1999, wants the Macedonian conflict defused to prevent a wider Balkan war.

The rebels say their aim is limited to more rights for ethnic Albanians within Slav-dominated Macedonia, but the government accuses them of seeking independence and drawing on Kosovo for fighters and weapons.

The government advance was preceded by an early morning mortar barrage meant to soften up the insurgents before the army's move into the foothills. Amid the thud of exploding rounds, a convoy of armored cars then rumbled through the center of downtown Tetovo before turning toward Gajre, 2 and 1/2 miles away.

As they approached Gajre, the personnel carriers stopped and about 200 soldiers disembarked and fanned out behind them. Other vehicles pulled six 155 mm cannons up the hill.

The troops looked nervous but determined. "We are fighting for Macedonia," said one soldier who refused to give his name. "For everybody here."

Slavs in Tetovo cheered the Macedonian government tanks as they clattered down the cobblestone streets. But in Gajre, ethnic Albanians expressed outrage at the attack, asserting government soldiers were targeting the houses of innocent civilians instead of insurgent positions.

"They think that every house is a bunker," said Nuri Junozic, 46.

Defense Ministry spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov said the army "is doing its best to avoid unnecessary destruction of civilian homes." Macedonia was in touch with NATO troops in Kosovo during the operation, he said.

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