TETOVO, Macedonia — The Macedonian army sent four tanks into the country's second-largest city Monday to fight ethnic Albanian insurgents as NATO promised to send troops to the border with neighboring Kosovo to cut off rebel supply lines.
The use of the tanks appeared to signal that the country's military was prepared to become more involved in the battle against the rebels, who say they are fighting for greater rights for minority ethnic Albanians. Until now, mainly police and special forces have participated in the fighting on the government side.
As the conflict moved into its sixth day, European leaders stepped up their criticism of the rebels' tactics. In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers discussed proposals to boost support for the Macedonian government, including help to improve border controls and increase financial aid to the country.
The rebels insist their battle is not being instigated by the former Kosovo Liberation Army from the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, but the latest uprising shares the aspirations of Kosovar Albanians for self-determination, if not outright independence. Some Western governments fear that hope for independence could take the shape of an expanded Kosovo including territory now part of Macedonia.
Although ethnic relations in Slav-dominated Macedonia have been relatively trouble-free — the Democratic Albanian Party is a partner in the government — substantial numbers of the minority feel they are being treated as second-class citizens.
The rebels have made the following demands:
international mediation to resolve their differences with the Slavic majority and determine the exact size of the ethnic Albanian community, variously estimated between 22 percent and 30 percent of the country's 2 million people;
changes in the Macedonian constitution to declare the country "a state of two constituent peoples — Macedonian and Albanian" to prevent alleged discrimination "in political institutions and state bodies, as well as in local governments, science, culture and media";
and a release of all "political prisoners."
Reflecting growing international concern that the stability of the entire region is at stake, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said Monday that the international force in Kosovo was moving more troops to the border with Macedonia to cut off supply lines to insurgents who have attacked government forces there. He declined to say how many troops would be deployed.
"We are determined to starve this limited group of extremists of the means" of carrying on the fighting, Robertson told reporters.
The fighting was making it difficult for humanitarian organizations to get shipments of medical supplies and other goods into Kosovo, creating "a growing hardship for the population," said Michael Keats, the U.N. spokesman in Pristina. He said the hospital there has only two days' worth of oxygen and was anxiously awaiting emergency supplies.
The Macedonian tanks entered Tetovo shortly before noon, accompanied by an armored personnel carrier and two military trucks, one filled with government soldiers. They arrived on the scene as clashes decreased in intensity after a night of bombardments.
Macedonian police and army units were bringing in infantry reinforcements, including armored vehicles, field artillery pieces and howitzers, the independent Yugoslav radio station B92 reported. It said the rebels tried to raid the center of Tetovo on Monday morning but suffered heavy casualties and retreated back into the hills above the city.
The report could not immediately be confirmed.
Several hundred ethnic Albanian civilians were fleeing Tetovo in buses and cars, said Thomas Loebbering, spokesman for German forces in the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo. "This is not a very promising sign," he said.
Germany moved four Leopard 2 battle tanks, four Marder armored personnel carriers and four Fuchs transport tanks, together with 100 soldiers from Kosovo, to protect its remaining 150-200 soldiers in Tetovo.
"We will only shoot back if we are under immediate attack," Loebbering said.
Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, in a Sunday address to a nation, declared that Macedonia is rapidly arming itself.
"Macedonia will win this battle without giving up a single foot of our territory. And after the victory, Macedonians and Albanians will continue to live together — as they must," Georgievski said.
He accused the United States and Germany of not doing enough to stop the rebels. "You cannot convince us that the chieftains of these gangs are unknown to your governments, nor can you persuade us that they cannot be stopped," he said.