- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia Macedonian troops dislodged ethnic Albanian rebels from several strongholds in the northwestern hills yesterday as NATO threw the weight of the international community behind the government.

The Skopje government announced that its troops had taken control of the northwestern hills, where the rebels have been operating, and there were no civilian casualties.

The rebels had been put to flight "panic-stricken terrorists in disarray," according to Defense Ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov.

[But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell cautioned in Washington that the battle was not "anywhere near over," although Macedonian forces had made some progress against ethnic Albanian extremists.

[Mr. Powell said Macedonian forces "have launched an attack and it seems they have had some success getting part way up that hill."

But, he added, "I don't think the battle is anywhere near over or that the crisis is yet resolved."]

Meanwhile, some 2,000 refugees poured into neighboring southern Kosovo after walking 10 hours across mountainous terrain to escape the fighting.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson praised the Macedonian government for its "commendable restraint," rather than delivering an expected admonition about the use of force.

"The Macedonian government has acted with commendable restraint and determined firmness and they have said they intend to continue with this policy which has been so successful to date," Mr. Robertson said after talks with President Boris Trajkovski and European Union foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana.

He also praised the fact that dialogue between the ethnic groups in the country, chiefly the Slav majority and the Albanian minority, was under way and would be "intensified."

President Bush said Sunday that he hoped U.S. and NATO efforts would 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 to prevent people and arms from getting to the rebels," Mr. Bush told reporters.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush was referring to "the stepped-up patrols intended to interdict Albanian-extremist weapons shipments."

The administration Saturday offered to help Macedonia improve its military capabilities.

Mr. Robertson's visit came as the Macedonian government claimed victory over the Albanian rebels, this after a concerted operation to flush them out of the northern hills.

Mr. Trendafilov said security forces were still in the hills above the northwestern town of Tetovo, where they had captured seven rebel-held villages, even though "the intensity of the action has been decreased."

"All entries and exits to the hills are now in government control and the armed forces came through the operation unscathed and without a single casualty," he said.

In the village of Selce, considered the National Liberation Army's headquarters in the hills, an Agence France-Presse reporter said the rebels had fled. They left cars in the middle of the road and weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, abandoned by the roadside.

About 500 civilians from Selce arrived overnight in the southern Kosovo town of Prizren after a 12-hour march across the Sar Mountains.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated Friday that of 22,000 people who had fled the conflict zone, some 14,200 had simply moved to other parts of Macedonia.

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