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Macedonia threatens all-out war against rebels

Special police units pounded ethnic Albanian rebel positions near here with mortar rounds Thursday as Macedonia's prime minister threatened to send in the army to wage all-out war against the guerrillas.

When the police barrage peaked at midafternoon, heavy blasts rattled Tetovo every few seconds as mortar rounds exploded in the mountains overlooking the city.

An escalating rebel insurgency spread this week from border clashes to this city on the outskirts of western Macedonia's ethnic Albanian heartland, further undermining NATO's peacekeeping efforts in the region.

The ethnic Albanian rebels, who call themselves the National Liberation Army, openly admit that they cross into Macedonia from NATO-protected Kosovo, a mainly ethnic Albanian province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

"Maybe these groups can, for a period of time, conquer some villages," Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said Thursday. But, "Those who want to start a war in Macedonia should know that Macedonia will defend itself with all available means. And if forced, it won't be picky about choosing allies."

Asked who might help fight the rebels, the prime minister hinted that the government might request assistance from NATO, which has support bases in Macedonia for its peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.

A convoy of about 10 military trucks marked KFOR, the acronym for the NATO-led force in Kosovo, headed west toward Tetovo along one of Macedonia's main highways Thursday evening.

Minutes behind it was a convoy of six Macedonian army trucks packed with soldiers. Each truck was pulling a small artillery piece, and an army ambulance brought up the rear.

The guerrillas fighting in Macedonia wear camouflage uniforms with red and black crests that resemble those of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebel force that was formally disbanded after NATO's 78-day air war in 1999 drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo.

But organized attacks on minority Serbs in Kosovo as well as rebel advances elsewhere in southern Serbia and in Macedonia suggest that elements of the KLA haven't abandoned their dream of uniting Albanian-speaking people scattered throughout the Balkans in a "Greater Albania."

Of about 200 guerrillas trying to advance on Tetovo through the Sar Mountains, some 60 are from Macedonia and 140 from Kosovo, said Macedonian Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski. He did not indicate the source of his information.

Macedonia broke away from the Yugoslav federation in 1991 and was the only former republic to win independence without bloodshed. Now it is trying to avert a civil war between majority ethnic Macedonian Slavs and minority ethnic Albanians, who make up at least one-quarter of the population.

The national Parliament plans to meet in a rare closed session today to discuss emergency moves to crush the rebellion. The measures are expected to include expanding the territory in which the Macedonian army legally can operate.

By law, the army can be deployed only in a narrow zone along the borders unless a state of emergency is declared. The government decided Thursday to widen the border zone and is debating the extent to which it should do so, government spokesman Antonio Milosevski said.

Macedonia's army is weak, and even the prime minister admitted that the guerrillas caught his troops off guard. If the fighting escalates into all-out war, NATO risks getting drawn into another Balkan conflict.

U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division have helped the army on a second front by shooting and wounding two suspected ethnic Albanian rebels last week in a brief clash along Kosovo's border with Macedonia.

On Wednesday, NATO allowed a small force of Yugoslav troops back into an area of southern Serbia adjacent to Kosovo and Macedonia, a region through which rebels have smuggled weapons. The Yugoslav troops had been barred from the zone since their defeat by the alliance in 1999.

NATO's decision angered its former allies among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, not least because the Yugoslav forces were accompanied by Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic. He led the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo that, along with Serbian police and paramilitary forces, were accused of committing war crimes. However, Pavkovic has not been indicted publicly by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands.

Outside Tetovo's walled stadium, from which police fired mortar rounds and heavy machine guns at the mountains, angry ethnic Macedonian Slavs insisted that the rebel attacks had nothing to do with human rights.

"The Macedonian people will not try to make war with these (ethnic Albanian) people," said Mirce Gurginovski, 48, who runs a small auto body repair shop across from the stadium. "I eat and drink together with Albanians all day long."

"They are grizzlies," snarled Ratko Trpceski, 53. "If they want war, they will get war. But (Macedonia's) Albanian citizens don't want war. Everyone here wants good dreams and peace."

Eight hours of heavy fighting around Tetovo on Wednesday left at least 15 people wounded and one dead. A sniper killed ethnic Albanian Ramadan Suleimani, 42.

Fighting also continued along a second front in northern Macedonia near the village of Tanusevci, about 15 miles north of the capital, Skopje. U.S. troops are deployed just across the border in Kosovo.