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
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
"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. …