SKOPJE, Macedonia — Ethnic Albanian rebels declared a cease-fire Wednesday and renewed their call for talks with the Macedonian government, which has repeatedly said it will not negotiate with what it calls terrorists.
The guerrilla National Liberation Army announced the moves in a taped statement broadcast on television Wednesday afternoon in neighboring Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.
"We, the general staff of the National Liberation Army, announce a unilateral cease-fire, and we open the road for dialogue so heads can cool down and to find the best solution," said Ali Ahmeti, the rebels' political chief.
The Macedonian government declined to comment on the declaration, which came just hours before an official deadline for the rebels to unconditionally surrender or leave the country.
But Macedonian authorities, with the support of the U.S. and the European Union, have consistently said they will not negotiate with the rebels. President Boris Trajkovski released a short statement: "It is necessary to neutralize and eliminate the extremists."
Ethnic Albanian fighters in the region have broken agreements before, including a cease-fire brokered last week by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in an effort to stop a rebellion in southern Serbia.
Ethnic Albanian guerrillas, who claim that a large stretch of Serbia outside Kosovo should be part of the province, on Wednesday fired mortar shells at Serbian police, according to the Serbian government. The rebels have launched nearly a dozen attacks in the area in 24 hours, officials said.
Despite their cease-fire declaration, the rebels in Macedonia vowed to fight on if necessary.
"In the event our positions are threatened by our opponents, then all our forces will be on the move and the conflict would widen," Ahmeti said.
"We have repeated constantly and will repeat again that we are for dialogue," he said. "We are not for a war that would create rivers of blood between two nations, because the reason for dialogue would be lost in that case."
The rebels say they are seeking equal rights for ethnic Albanians, who make up at least a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people. Western officials and analysts fear that the rebels are seeking to redraw borders and create a "Greater Albania," an effort that could lead to new warfare in a region torn by conflict during the past decade.
In Skopje, Macedonia's capital, gunmen killed a police officer and wounded another Wednesday, raising fears that the conflict could quickly spread if the cease-fire doesn't hold.
The shooting, in an ethnic Albanian district of Skopje, came just hours before the midnight deadline for rebels to surrender.
Police arrested three people in the attack on the two officers, both of whom were ethnic Macedonian Slavs. The shooting occurred in a shopping area about 800 yards from the center of the capital.
The shooting was the first such attack on police in Skopje since fighting spread last week from the border area to Tetovo, about 25 miles west of the capital. However, it was the second since the rebellion began a month ago. On Feb. 25, a police officer was shot four times and wounded. An ethnic Albanian man was arrested in that assault.
Police units armed with machine guns and assault rifles set up sandbag bunkers along the main highway between Skopje and Tetovo, the nation's two largest cities, after a bus came under fire on the road about 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Before the rebels announced their cease-fire, a Macedonian government spokesman warned that "there is no chance that the [midnight] deadline will be extended" if the ethnic Albanian fighters didn't surrender or leave the country.
"We have waited for seven days, even at the expense of the army's authority, only to protect innocent civilians," Georgi Trandafilov, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday. "But the moment has come when the violence cannot be tolerated anymore."
Western military analysts say Macedonia's forces are poorly trained and ill-equipped to fight a war against determined guerrillas.
However, NATO is providing aerial reconnaissance and other unspecified assistance to the Macedonian security forces. Russia, Bulgaria and Greece also have offered, or are already delivering, military aid.
Times special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic contributed to this report.
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Violence Comes to Macedonia
In 1992, Macedonia broke away from the Yugoslav federation--the only constituent republic to do so without bloodshed. Although Macedonia's majority Slavs have included the country's ethnic Albanians in the national government, the Albanians complain of linguistic, cultural and political discrimination. Macedonia took in about 250,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who fled or were expelled from neighboring Kosovo--a province of Serbia, the rump Yugoslavia's main republic--during NATO's 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, which was waged to halt "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo's majority Albanians. In mid-February of this year, ethnic Albanian guerrillas seized a Macedonian village near the border with Kosovo. Last week, clashes erupted between police and rebels near Tetovo, the second-largest city. After an ultimatum threatening a full-scale army assault, the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire Wednesday.