TETOVO, Macedonia — Police armed for combat moved Thursday into the hills above Tetovo and sent ethnic Albanian rebels retreating, police said. But reports of fighting and sightings of dug-in guerillas suggested the insurgents were resisting.
The police advance began a few hours after the Macedonian president ignored the insurgents' offer of a cease-fire and vowed to "neutralize and eliminate" them.
"It is necessary that the Macedonian army take control of the Macedonian side of the border," said President Boris Trajkovski, moments before the end of a midnight government deadline to the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender or leave Macedonia.
The rebels say they are a homegrown movement fighting for greater rights in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are outnumbered by Slavs three to one. But the government claims they are linked to fighters across the border in Kosovo and aim to break off northern Macedonia to form an independent ethnic Albanian state.
A police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said police met no resistance Thursday and that dozens of "terrorists" were arrested in the "search and sweep operation," the start of a government push to cleanse the hills of insurgents.
The scene behind insurgent lines, however, remained the same as before the offensive began — fortifications and road blocks in place and no signs of mass retreat by the insurgents.
Rebel sniper positions as close as 2 1/2 miles from Tetovo's center were manned, and the Beta news agency of neighboring Yugoslavia reported fighting between government troops and rebels near the village of Gracane, 15 miles northeast of Tetovo.
Shortly after the government offensive began, the boom or artillery or mortars was heard, shattering a more than 24-hour period of calm.
The struggle moved briefly into Tetovo itself. Near an intersection, reporters saw two bodies lying near a police checkpoint, and state radio said the men were shot by officers after one of them tried to lob a grenade. One of the dead victims still held a live grenade, and police were keeping their distance from the bodies, according to the report.