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We're set to fight, Albanians declare

The army mounted a heavy artillery attack Friday to push ethnic Albanian rebels northward, but the scene in this hill town above Macedonia's second-largest city reflected a rebel force ready to stay put and step up their fight.

The sound of detonations from government artillery pieces were ignored by armed lookouts lurking in the woods. Weapons were loaded and ready in nearly every home. Ethnic Albanian insurgents, with pistols peeking out from camouflage uniforms, confidently strode along the only paved road.

Police late Friday claimed a "successful offensive" pushed the rebels back from Tetovo. But the hills southwest of Tetovo remained in rebel control. The message to the Slav-led government is clear: The uprising has deep local roots and the support of many who say they are ready to expand the fight for greater rights.

The rebels, whose insurgency started a month ago in a village on the border with Kosovo, appeared determined to expand their struggle from that sparsely inhabited area to Macedonia's principal cities.

Ethnic Albanians account for at least a quarter of Macedonia's 2-million people, dominating western regions of the country and a large section of the capital.

The unrest is linked both to Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia administered by the United Nations and NATO-led peacekeepers, and a buffer zone adjoining it, where Yugoslav troops deployed Wednesday. Rebels and arms have been moving relatively freely from one area to the other, and the militants share aspirations for ethnic Albanian self-determination if not outright independence.

But fighters in Shipkovica and nearby villages contradicted the claim by Macedonian authorities that the rebellion is being directed by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The scene in those communities also showed some level of rebel organization developing in areas that have slipped from government hands.

The government asserts that Macedonia is a model for ethnic coexistence and minority rights in the Balkans, and many urban ethnic Albanians say that _ while changes are needed _ they must be accomplished peacefully.

But villagers expressed unqualified support for challenging a system they say places ethnic Albanians on a second-class level.

"If we have to fight for our rights, it's a just cause," said teacher Fatmir Seremi, who monitors a checkpoint for the rebels outside Shipkovica. "There's no other way. The government and police are forcing us to fight."

Some rebels say they took part in the Kosovo Liberation Army's battle with Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. But they insist that their latest struggle is homegrown and that they only inherited some weapons and other equipment from the KLA.

They say ethnic Albanians face discrimination on many levels, from police harassment to problems getting bank loans and building permits. They also express deep disappointment with the Democratic Albanian Party, a partner in the government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski.