VAKSINCE, Macedonia — Army forces launched an assault on ethnic Albanian rebel strongholds Tuesday as Macedonia's political parties attempted to forge a national unity government aimed at ending the conflict.
In a fragile show of unity, the leaders of key parties representing majority Slavs and minority ethnic Albanians agreed to work together to defuse tensions in the troubled Balkan country, where ethnic Albanians complain of discrimination and second-class status.
But a key ethnic Albanian party later said it wouldn't join the government unless the army called off its offensive. And the insurgents--furious at the government's refusal to negotiate with their National Liberation Army--warned of more bloodshed.
Thousands of frightened villagers streamed into neighboring Kosovo on Tuesday, fleeing homes they said were leveled in the latest army offensive, which began last week after eight soldiers were killed in a rebel ambush April 28.
"Any government formed . . . without the participation of the NLA will only let more blood get spilled," a rebel leader who goes by the name Commander Sokoli--or "Falcon"--told the Kosovalive news agency in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. "Those who initiated this crisis should sit and talk."
Macedonia's government, which refuses to speak directly with the rebels, has the support of the West in its battle with the militants.
On Tuesday, it unleashed a fierce assault on rebel positions, using helicopter gunships and firing heavy artillery, mortars and rockets at the village of Vaksince, 15 miles north of the capital, Skopje.
Army Col. Blagoje Markovski confirmed a second army assault late Tuesday on suspected rebel positions in the hills north of Tetovo, the country's second-largest city, where fighting raged for weeks earlier this year. He said rebels laying mines in the area fired on troops, who answered with artillery fire and drove out the insurgents.
Markovski said that several hundred rebels were holed up in Vaksince and that the military operation would continue until the militants "are finally eliminated." He said that the rebels had suffered severe casualties and that no soldiers were hurt. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
Smoke billowed from houses that suffered direct hits, and the barrage sent a dark cloud of dust over the village center.
Long-range, 122-millimeter artillery shells buzzed overhead before slamming into the village's whitewashed houses. The rattle of heavy machine-gun, tank and mortar fire echoed from the base of a hill.
About 2,600 people fled to Kosovo on Tuesday, the U.N. said, joining 4,000 who arrived Monday.