Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Macedonia civil war becomes airborne

March 25, 2001

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— Army helicopters swooped over a mountain within sight of this city and fired several rockets at suspected guerrilla hideouts Saturday in the first air assault of Macedonia's month-old ethnic conflict.

The government wasted little time deploying the two MI-24 attack helicopters after acquiring them Friday from Ukraine. The late-afternoon strike came a few hours after ethnic Albanian rebels on the mountain sent two mortar rounds slamming into a Slavic neighborhood near a police checkpoint, wounding four civilians.

A U.S. helicopter brings supplies Saturday as American soldiers
stand guard at the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. U.S. forces
are patrolling the area, trying to prevent any weapons smuggling by
ethnic Albanian rebels into neighboring Macedonia.

A U.S. helicopter brings supplies Saturday as American soldiers stand guard at the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. U.S. forces are patrolling the area, trying to prevent any weapons smuggling by ethnic Albanian rebels into neighboring Macedonia.

Macedonia's army and police, ill-prepared for ground combat against the mountain-based insurgency, have been fighting back mainly with long-range artillery. The government's introduction of air power raised the stakes in a conflict that holds the risk of heavy civilian casualties on both sides.

The lightning helicopter attack sent up plumes of dirt and smoke over a slope of Mount Sar Planina, which looms above Macedonia's second-largest city. There was no word of any casualties.

So far, the intensity of fighting, revolving mostly around Tetovo, has been low. Macedonia's Slav-led government has held back a threatened offensive against the rebel National Liberation Army, which says it is fighting for equal rights of the ethnic Albanians who make up nearly a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people.

President Bush on Friday and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Saturday joined a chorus of international appeals to the government here to act with restraint against the guerrillas said to number a few thousand and to work with elected ethnic Albanian political leaders to address legitimate grievances.

The Macedonian leadership, which brands the rebels as separatists and terrorists, gave the world leaders a testy reply Saturday. "We thank them for their recommendation," said government spokesman Antonio Milosovski, "but Macedonia is a sovereign state, so any decision to use any kind of force against terrorists is only ours."

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski told reporters late Friday that a political decision had been made to strike the rebels hard.

"Now it is up to the military to judge when conditions are right for a successful operation," he said. "It could be one hour or one day or one week. It is completely up to the military."

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