TETOVO, Macedonia — Mortar shells exploded in the center of this embattled city for the first time Friday after several hours of withering fire from police units failed to stop an assault by ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
At least four shells exploded about 3:15 p.m., one of them in the main intersection and another against the wall of a home, as the pitched battle spilled into the heart of Tetovo from the nearby mountains.
There were no reports of deaths during the fighting, which knocked out power across this city of 200,000 people.
The guerrillas appear determined to seize Tetovo as they pursue their apparent goal of uniting ethnic Albanians across the region into a "Greater Albania." At least some of them infiltrated Macedonia from Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of neighboring Yugoslavia.
The few ethnic Macedonian Slavs remaining in this mainly ethnic Albanian city increasingly aimed their rage about the rebel offensive at the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, contending that the guerrillas thrive under the protection of an alliance-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
"You from America, you gave them money, aid and weapons to kill us," Lence Spasovska, 62, whose family home was hit by a mortar shell, shouted at a reporter. "You gave them everything."
U.S. Accused of Siding With the Albanians
"You've bombed Yugoslavia, and you cannot bomb [ethnic] Albanians for at least five minutes?" asked her 17-year-old grandson, Jovica Horakovska. "Don't try to kid me. You have been siding with Albanians for years."
One of the blasts Friday hit the outside wall of their home as Jovica's mother, Milica, was cooking lunch. The blast blew out the windows, and pieces of shrapnel smashed about 15 holes as big as tennis balls in the wall.
No one was injured, but the attack left the family shocked and seething with anger. The youngest of Milica Horakovska's three children was born Tuesday, the day before the rebels launched their offensive on Tetovo from the foothills overlooking the city.
Since the late 19th century, toward the end of the Ottoman Turks' rule of the Balkans, nationalists have argued that Albanian-speaking people scattered across the region should be united in one state.
The decade-long disintegration of Yugoslavia gave new strength to the movement for a "Greater Albania," which would unite ethnic Albanians in former and current Yugoslav republics with Albania itself.
After a 78-day NATO bombing campaign forced Yugoslav troops and Serbian police from Kosovo in June 1999, the province's ethnic Albanian extremists drove out most of the minority Serbs; even moderate ethnic Albanians are demanding independence.
The rebels have taken their fight into other areas of southern Serbia that they have long insisted are part of Kosovo, and into Macedonia, where at least a quarter of the country's 2 million people are ethnic Albanians.
Montenegro, Serbia's weaker partner in what remains of Yugoslavia, is threatening to break away too. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic is expected to call a referendum on independence this summer.
Montenegro has an ethnic Albanian minority that could use any split from Yugoslavia as an excuse to break away itself and, in the worst-case scenario, open another rebel front in the Balkans.
Here in Macedonia, special police armed with assault rifles, machine guns and mortars have borne the brunt of the battle against the rebels near Tetovo. On Friday, one small police unit fired from a position just a stone's throw from a Macedonian army base in the city.
The base also accommodates about 1,200 German soldiers assigned to the Kosovo peacekeeping operation who came under fire Friday from guerrillas in the hills. A German soldier reportedly was slightly injured by flying glass.
German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping ordered Leopard tanks stationed with peacekeepers in Kosovo to reinforce the base, the Reuters news service reported.
A small convoy carrying Austrian and German troops, guarded by a large armored vehicle with a turret-mounted cannon, headed west from Skopje, the Macedonian capital, toward the Tetovo base Friday afternoon, along with two army ambulances.
The German soldiers are in a logistics unit that provides food, fuel and other supplies to NATO-led troops in Kosovo, according to Maj. Tadej Novak, a Slovenian spokesman for the peacekeepers.
Small Aircraft Seen Over Combat Zone
As the fighting intensified in the foothills of the Sar mountains overlooking Tetovo, a small aircraft, possibly an unmanned reconnaissance drone, buzzed low over the combat zone in a straight-line pass. It flew in from the direction of Kosovo.
Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski told reporters Thursday that he was considering asking NATO for help in crushing the rebels, but spokesman Antonio Milosevski said the government is satisfied with the international community's support so far.