TETOVO, Macedonia — Army helicopters swooped over a mountain within sight of this city and fired several rockets at suspected guerrilla hideouts Saturday in the first air assault of Macedonia's month-old ethnic conflict.
The government wasted little time deploying the two MI-24 attack helicopters after acquiring them Friday from Ukraine. The late-afternoon strike came a few hours after ethnic Albanian rebels on the mountain sent two mortar rounds slamming into a Slavic neighborhood near a police checkpoint, wounding four civilians.
Macedonia's army and police, ill-prepared for ground combat against the mountain-based insurgency, have been fighting back mainly with long-range artillery. The government's introduction of air power raised the stakes in a conflict that holds the risk of heavy civilian casualties on both sides.
The lightning helicopter attack sent up plumes of dirt and smoke over a slope of Mount Sar Planina, which looms above Macedonia's second-largest city. There was no word of any casualties.
So far, the intensity of fighting, mostly around Tetovo, has been low. Macedonia's Slav-led government has held back a threatened large-scale offensive against the rebel National Liberation Army, which says it is fighting for equal rights of the ethnic Albanians who make up nearly a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people.
President Bush Friday and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Saturday joined a chorus of international appeals to the government here to act with restraint against the guerrillas — said to number a few thousand — and to work with elected ethnic Albanian political leaders to address legitimate grievances.
The Macedonian leadership, which brands the rebels as separatists and terrorists, gave the world leaders a testy reply Saturday. "We thank them for their recommendation," said government spokesman Antonio Milosovski, "but Macedonia is a sovereign state, so any decision to use any kind of force against terrorists is only ours."
Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski told reporters late Friday that a political decision had been made to strike the rebels hard.
"Now it is up to the military to judge when conditions are right for a successful operation," he said. "It could be one hour or one day or one week. It is completely up to the military."
The government has urged civilians to leave mountain settlements occupied by the rebels.
Thousands of people have already fled Tetovo, de facto capital of Macedonia's Albanian community. Hundreds are gone from its minority Slav quarter, where Saturday's mortar attack, apparently aimed at the police checkpoint 50 yards away, tore part of the tile roof off Simka Simovska's red brick house.
Relatives led the weeping 78-year-old matriarch to a car and drove in search of safer quarters. The family escaped harm, but three men and a woman were wounded by a spray of shrapnel outside the house.
The guerrillas opened a new front last week, engaging Macedonian troops along the border with Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian province of Serbia that NATO freed from Yugoslavia's domination in 1999. Tank, cannon and mortar fire echoed along the border Saturday as the Macedonian army rushed in reinforcements.
Macedonia has urged NATO to crack down on arms shipments from Kosovo to the rebels around Tetovo. Following Sweden's lead, Italy pledged Saturday to send 200 paratroopers to beef up border patrols of the U.N.-led international force in Kosovo. Others, including France and the United States, are sending unmanned aircraft over the border to collect intelligence for the Macedonians.