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Macedonia says rebels in retreat

But witnesses say ethnic Albanians holding their ground

TETOVO, Macedonia — Ethnic Albanian rebels engaged Macedonian government forces in isolated skirmishes, answering authorities' claims that they had the upper hand with a fresh show of firepower — and resolve.

Despite renewed shelling from Macedonian forces, and sporadic blasts of heavy machine fire overnight, rebel fortifications remained in place today and there were no signs of mass retreat by the insurgents.

At least 50 refugees crossed the border into neighboring Kosovo, and some sought treatment for wounds, said 1st Lt. Martin Valkysers, a spokesman for the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR. "Some of them are injured and are being treated by our troops."

Police at a road checkpoint inside Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city, shot and killed two men believed to be ethnic Albanians who were holding grenades. Seven explosions were heard near the village of Tanusevci on the border with Kosovo early today, the U.S. military in Kosovo said.

Macedonian forces also exchanged gunfire today with rebels at a German military barracks in Tetovo, Detlef Puhl, spokesman for the German Defense Ministry, said in Berlin. No one was injured in the shooting. Last week, most German soldiers were moved from the barracks after it was caught in a cross fire between Macedonian troops and ethnic Albanians.

Government forces also claimed that they seized large quantities of weapons and arrested scores of militants who were fleeing without a fight.

But the scene behind insurgent lines told a different story.

Grenade attacks on police and scattered clashes in the countryside suggested the rebels, who say they are fighting for greater rights for minority ethnic Albanians, still have the will and means to fight.

Rebel sniper positions as close as 2 1/2 miles from Tetovo's center were manned, and police spokesman Stevo Pendarovski said mortar rounds were fired from nearby Kosovo at a police checkpoint near the village of Gracane, 15 miles northeast of Tetovo, wounding a policeman.

More than 22,000 Macedonians, both Slav and ethnic Albanian, are estimated to have left their homes since fighting broke out last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said today.

Near the capital, Skopje, police reported another officer wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade, and there was fighting Thursday night between rebels, police and special army anti-terrorist units in the town of Caska outside Skopje.

"If the Macedonian army and police go on a total offensive, we will move on to total guerrilla warfare and extend it to other cities," a rebel commander who goes only by one name, Sokoli — "Falcon" in Albanian — told Deutsche Welle radio Thursday.

Shattering chances for talks with the rebels, government forces unleashed new shelling that had villagers fleeing to basements and guerrillas fortifying positions for a possible head-on assault.

More than 22,000 Macedonians, both Slav and ethnic Albanian, are estimated to have left their homes since fighting broke out last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Friday.

The agency said 14,200 of them had moved to other parts of Macedonia. The rest had gone to Turkey, Albania, Yugoslavia and Bosnia. Of those, about 1,110 were said to have gone to Kosovo.

"The vast majority of those who left their homes did so as a precautionary measure and are staying with friends and relatives," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond. "There have been very few requests for humanitarian assistance."

Macedonian gunners resumed the barrage on hills outside Tetovo early Thursday after more than 24 hours of calm — the longest quiet period since the battles escalated last week. The attacks were an answer to the rebels' offer of a truce in exchange for political negotiations.

The government, which refuses to talk with rebels it considers terrorists, had its own demands: surrender or flee the country. The next step, said President Boris Trajkovski, was to "neutralize and eliminate" the insurgents.

That could prove to be very difficult.

The Macedonian military is weak and ill-equipped to fight a guerrilla insurgency. A large bloc — perhaps nearly half — of the 8,000-soldier conscript force is made up of ethnic Albanians who cannot be counted on to remain if called to fight.

The rebels, however, are led by commanders who joined the Kosovo Liberation Army in its fight in Kosovo against the much tougher Yugoslav military.

The rebels say they are a homegrown movement fighting for greater rights in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are outnumbered by Slavs by about three to one. But the government claims they are linked to fighters across the border in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo and aim to break off northern Macedonia to form an independent ethnic Albanian state.

Although ethnic relations with the majority Slavs have been relatively trouble-free, substantial numbers of the ethnic Albanian minority feel they are being treated as second-class citizens. The struggle appears to have radicalized a large segment of Macedonian Albanians.