Tetovo 'Final' Assault Only a Start ; Yesterday's New Offensive Hardens Attitudes toward Dug-In, Ethnic- Albanian Guerrillas in Macedonia

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The first artillery barrage swept across suspected rebel trenches at dawn in the hills above Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest town, marking the government's launch yesterday of a "final offensive" against ethnic-Albanian insurgents.

Moments later, as the roar of sustained bombardment echoed across the valley, tanks ground up cobblestone streets and moved into firing position.

The latest ethnic conflict to threaten stability in the Balkans has the poorly trained and untested Macedonian Army - 40 percent of whose conscripts are ethnic Albanian - trying to dislodge the rebels, who say they are fighting for greater civil rights and self- determination for Albanians in Slav-dominated Macedonia.

Infantry troops fanned out through the woods toward rebel- controlled villages above Tetovo, for the first time taking the war directly to the guerrilla National Liberation Army, or UCK. In the initial stages, the rebels seemed to fall back.

But despite the display of firepower - which included several pounding assaults by a pair of attack helicopters acquired from Ukraine over the weekend - victory is hardly assured. And even if the offensive is successful, it is opening a chasm between the two communities that will prove difficult to bridge.

There was confusion as government soldiers, some ethnic Albanian and many with fear on their faces, moved into frontline positions in the town. In one case, an officer phoned superiors in a panic when his force came under moderate machine-gun fire, then withdrew.

Ethnic Slavs, who make up some 70 percent of the population overall but are a minority in Tetovo, cheered as three tanks rolled past in clouds of exhaust fumes.

In sharp contrast, ethnic Albanians angrily accused the Army of targeting civilians as well as rebel positions. "They think that every house is a bunker," complains Nuri Junozic.

Moderate Albanian parties - which analysts say may be the key to preventing an all-out civil war - had threatened to pull out of the fragile government coalition if the offensive went ahead. Already they are politically vulnerable, as support for the insurgency grows.

"There are different stories, different strategies, and different beliefs" that polarize the two communities, says an ethnic Slav observer in Tetovo, who asked not to be named. "Now it will escalate even more.... Some will be disappointed; some will ask for revenge, and we [on both sides] have many unstable people and many weapons," he says. "Everything is possible."

The government has vowed to "eliminate the terrorists," as it terms the rebels, and has rejected offers for peace talks. …