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Macedonian forces intensify attacks as rebels gain support

Macedonian gunners expanded their barrage against ethnic Albanian rebels Saturday, unleashing sustained artillery strikes across wooded foothills that have become a rallying point for the armed uprising for greater rights and recognition.

But the Slav-led government's firepower appeared to be no match for the insurgents' most powerful weapon: growing support for the rebellion.

Security forces are unwilling to directly battle the rebels in the snow-topped mountains outside Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city and capital of its ethnic Albanian region. And each day of long-range bombardment with no clear results undermines the government's claim that it has the upper hand.

The insurgents, meanwhile, are winning over new admirers.

"I'm ready to fight. We cannot let this chance pass by," said 33-year-old Gani Selman after the rebel National Liberation Army issued a call Saturday for "all able-bodied citizens to take arms." Selman heard the news from friends in the capital, Skopje, because authorities have silenced Albanian-language media in the Tetovo region.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that a senior guerrilla official ridiculed Western claims that the movement was hatched recently and involves only a few hundred fighters. Sadri Ameti, 29, said that thousands of fighters have been enlisted in the National Liberation Army and trained to oust government forces from a huge swath of territory.

The guerrillas' bottom-line demand, Ameti told the Post, will be that they get control over the nearby city of Tetovo and all other cities where ethnic Albanians have "historically .


. owned territory." That appeared to mean the nation's western third, located near its border with Albania and Kosovo.

"As long as Macedonian Slav forces are here, I think the fighting will go on," Ameti told the Post. "It will be spread."

Even some highly influential leaders seem to agree that a violent showdown may be the only way to challenge a system they claim fosters discrimination and harassment against ethnic Albanians, who account for at least a quarter of Macedonia's 2-million people.

"We would welcome international mediation, but I fear we are running out of time," said Fadil Sulejmani, rector of the once-outlawed University of Tetovo. "This is becoming a kind of holy war."

In Tetovo, indications of an all-out confrontation appeared stronger in the only former Yugoslav republic to achieve independence without bloodshed.

The battle intensified in the strategic hillsides above the city and it continued into Saturday evening with gunfire echoing in the hills.

A Macedonian Army helicopter transporting police officers crashed Saturday on the slopes north of Tetovo when it hit an antenna near a ski resort, the military said. One person was killed and 15 others injured.

Security forces pummeled the area with artillery, heavy machine guns and mortars. Sharpshooters fired at suspected rebel hide-outs. Commandos guarded banks, gas stations and the telecommunications office.

The rebels responded with sporadic automatic gunfire and possibly mortars. Some homes in central Tetovo had been hit by mortar rounds.

About 500 refugees from Tetovo and Skopje have fled, Albanian media reported.

"I can't understand that after living for 33 years in Tetovo, together with (ethnic) Albanians, I had to leave," said Snezana Avramovska, 33, who joined other refugees rallying Saturday outside the government building in Skopje to demand that authorities restore full control over the city they had to flee.

There have been no signs of the rebels attempting to seize parts of Tetovo.

Police and rebels also exchanged fire early Saturday near the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, police spokesman Stevo Pendarovski said.

No one was injured.

As a precaution, Germany moved soldiers out of Tetovo and moved tanks in after rebels opened fire on their barracks, the Defense Ministry said Saturday.