RED Cross teams use lull in fighting to provide aid

Sunday, May 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ Red Cross teams used a lull in fighting Sunday to rush food and medical supplies to ethnic Albanian civilians living in the northern towns where rebels and government troops are trading fire.

The well-being of ethnic Albanians living in Macedonia's tense north has become a major issue in weeks of battles between government troops and insurgents.

The area's 6,000 ethnic Albanian residents _ many who are staying put out of solidarity for the rebels _ are running low on food and supplies, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Four Red Cross cars went into rebel-held villages in the north Sunday.

``We got security guarantees from both sides,'' Red Cross spokeswoman Amanda Williamson said. ``We are going to bring some more medical supplies. The health situation has deteriorated.''

The rebels have been fighting since February for broader rights for Macedonia's ethnic Albanians, who make up nearly a third of the country's 2 million people.

Government forces have been unable to defeat or effectively dislodge the militants, who remain entrenched in several villages north of the capital, Skopje.

Last weekend, Macedonia's major Slav and ethnic Albanian parties banded together to form a unity government with a goal of finding a political solution to the demand for greater rights.

The Slav-dominated government also pledged to crush the rebels it accuses of trying to divide the country.

After repeatedly urging civilians to leave the area earlier this week to make room for an all-out offensive against the rebels, the government accused the guerrillas of using the local population as a ``human shield.''

A few thousand have evacuated from the north, crossing the border into Yugoslavia's neighboring Kosovo province, and about 250 people went south to the government-controlled town of Kumanovo.

Williamson said Red Cross teams have found that many people staying behind out of ``a strong sense of solidarity, which seems to increase as time goes on.''

``It is also possible that there is some pressure by the (ethnic Albanian) armed groups on the civilians to stay'' as a safeguard against a government attack, she said. Authorities insist they want to avoid civilian casualties.

``We can't say this (pressure) is a fact, but we can't exclude the possibility,'' she said.

President Boris Trajkovski toured army front lines Saturday, praising troops for thwarting what he called rebel attempts to spark chaos.

But shortly after he left, machine-gun fire resounded in the distance, followed by the thunder of about 20 detonations of heavy artillery.

The gunfire ceased by afternoon, and the lull extended into Sunday.