SKOPJE, Macedonia — Ethnic Albanian rebels attacked Macedonian forces near a northern village Friday, trapping senior government officials in a remote area, despite U.S. moves to cut the flow of supplies to the insurgents from Kosovo.
Macedonian state radio announced that border crossing points into Kosovo would be closed Friday afternoon because of the "security situation." Most supplies to Kosovo's civilian population and international peacekeepers enter the province from Macedonia.
The fighting started late Thursday when insurgents ambushed a government convoy in the village of Brest, killing a driver. Shooting continued Friday, preventing the officials in the convoy — including the country's deputy interior minister — from leaving the village, police sources said.
Brest is about two miles south of another hamlet on the Kosovo border that the rebels evacuated early Thursday. After the rebels left, U.S. peacekeepers took over the hamlet, Tanusevci, and promised to prevent Kosovo from becoming a safe haven for insurgents.
Macedonian officials traveled to the area to assure residents that the government was in control and came under attack, officials said.
The American move into the border region was the most robust response so far by the NATO-led peacekeeping force to ethnic Albanian rebel activity that is spreading from Kosovo to Albanian-speaking areas beyond the province's borders.
Additionally, NATO agreed Thursday to allow Yugoslav troops to take up positions in the southern part of a buffer zone around Kosovo to curb ethnic Albanian smuggling from Macedonia into the Presevo Valley of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.
It's an area where the borders of Macedonia, Kosovo and the rest of Serbia meet.
Ethnic Albanian rebels in the valley launched an attack Friday on Serb forces along the buffer zone, killing one policeman and wounding two others, Serb officials said. The attack occurred in the village of Lucane — half of which is controlled by Serb forces, the other half by ethnic Albanian fighters.
Fighting around Kosovo's borders has raised fears of a new Balkan war. Concern is especially strong for the stability of Macedonia, an impoverished, landlocked country of 2 million people — 25 percent of them ethnic Albanians.
Greece announced Friday it would send military aid — including five trucks, radios, medical supplies and bulletproof vests — to its northern neighbor. Bulgaria dispatched a 10-truck convoy of military supplies to Macedonia on Thursday, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov arrived for a two-day visit to show solidarity with the Macedonians.
In Washington, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson expressed confidence that Kosovo peacekeepers can put an end to attacks by ethnic Albanian rebels along the border with Macedonia.
"Their robust presence, I believe, is having an effect on those people who use that whole border area — ill-defined as it is, heavily mined as it is — as a sort of adventure playground for violence," Robertson said Thursday at a news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Moves to strengthen border security and allow Yugoslav troops into the buffer zone represent a major change in the mission of NATO-led peacekeepers, who entered Kosovo in June 1999 after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign to force then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to halt his crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists.
At first, NATO's mission was to protect the province's ethnic Albanian population. With rebel activity spreading, the alliance now faces the task of curbing ethnic Albanian militants — a move which could put them in conflict with the province's overwhelmingly Albanian majority.
Thursday's attack on the police convoy was the third fatal incident in Macedonia in a week. Two Macedonian soldiers died last weekend when their vehicle struck a land mine and a third was killed by a sniper.