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Two dead, one injured in Macedonia near Kosovo border

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March 5, 2001 


SKOPJE-(AP) - Two soldiers were killed and a third was seriously wounded Sunday amid an outburst of fighting between Macedonian government forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents just outside Kosovo.

Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov said that an army vehicle with two soldiers inside hit a land mine while passing near the village of Tanusevci, a stronghold of the insurgents 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of the capital, Skopje. One soldier died instantly, the other was in critical condition.

Another soldier died within hours at a nearby location, hit by sniper fire, sparking an exchange of fire between the government troops and the armed rebels.

"It's a real war," said Hamdi Hasani, mayor of the Kosovo border village of Debele, very near Tanusevci. He said sporadic exchanges of gunfire increased by late morning into prolonged firefights.

The latest upsurge of fighting around Kosovo has raised fears of another major crisis that could threaten the whole region, less than two years after NATO and the United Nations moved into Kosovo, which is a Serbian province.

Hasani said heavy weapons were being used, with some rounds falling inside Kosovo. As he spoke via telephone, the thud of exploding shells was heard in the background.

Hasani demanded NATO and U.N. police to "take action." Otherwise, he said, Debele villagers would have to "defend themselves," he said, without going into details.

Capt. Elaine Cramer, a spokeswoman with the U.S. contingent of Kosovo's NATO-led peacekeepers, said American observers in Debele reported hearing "sporadic gunfire in the distance." She could not confirm rounds landing from Macedonia into Kosovo.

Macedonia's president, Boris Trajkovski, held an urgent meeting with defense officials and several ambassadors of NATO countries. The president's office said U.S. Ambassador Michael Eikin and Mark Dickenson, his British counterpart, were among those attending.

Ethnic Albanian insurgents have launched twin offensives south of Kosovo into Macedonia, and east of Kosovo into a buffer zone with Serbia. The two conflicts both appear to be sparked by insurgents in heavily ethnic Albanian areas in apparent hopes of joining the areas with Kosovo as part their ultimate goal of independence. Fighters in both conflicts are thought to be aided from Kosovo.

Last week, Macedonian Defense Minister Ljuben Paunovski said his government would issue an ultimatum to the extremists and demand their immediate withdrawal from the village.

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the violence.

The Macedonian Foreign Ministry said that Kosovo's NATO and United Nations heads - Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu and Hans Haekkerup - were expected in Skopje later in the day for urgent consultations.

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