KUMANOVO, Macedonia — Macedonian troops pounded suspected ethnic Albanian rebel positions with artillery Wednesday and besieged part of the border with Kosovo amid fading hopes for a political settlement.
The chances that parties representing the majority Slavs and minority Albanians would form a national unity government dimmed Tuesday when a key ethnic Albanian party demanded that the offensive end before talks begin.
The spokesman for the largest Macedonian Slav party, the VMRO, acknowledged that the coalition's formation would have to be postponed at least until next week.
The militants pledged to fight on and insisted that they must be given a role in negotiations to end the crisis. "The government has to face reality," said a rebel leader who goes by the name Cmdr. Sokoli. "It has to face us."
The midday assault began after rebels fired on troops with machine guns, prompting government forces to respond with shelling that destroyed the insurgents' sniper nest, the army said.
The rebels struck back, sending mortar rounds crashing near army positions. But there was disagreement about who fired first.
The army called for the evacuation of about 2,000 civilians who it says are in the hills north of Kumanovo, toward the border with Kosovo, but few heeded the call. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
Caught in the shooting Wednesday were two British journalists who had traveled to the northern village of Slupcane during what was supposed to have been a cease-fire.
The two reporters were able to walk out of the village to government positions after the International Committee of the Red Cross persuaded both sides to hold their fire.
Thousands of frightened villagers have been streaming from villages about 15 miles north of the capital, Skopje, and into neighboring Kosovo. Many said they left behind homes leveled in the army offensive.