The first artillery barrage swept across suspected rebel trenches at dawn in the hills above Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest town, marking the government's launch yesterday of a "final offensive" against ethnic-Albanian insurgents.
Moments later, as the roar of sustained bombardment echoed across the valley, tanks ground up cobblestone streets and moved into firing position.
The latest ethnic conflict to threaten stability in the Balkans has the poorly trained and untested Macedonian Army - 40 percent of whose conscripts are ethnic Albanian - trying to dislodge the rebels, who say they are fighting for greater civil rights and self-determination for Albanians in Slav-dominated Macedonia.
Infantry troops fanned out through the woods toward rebel-controlled villages above Tetovo, for the first time taking the war directly to the guerrilla National Liberation Army, or UCK. In the initial stages, the rebels seemed to fall back.
But despite the display of firepower - which included several pounding assaults by a pair of attack helicopters acquired from Ukraine over the weekend - victory is hardly assured. And even if the offensive is successful, it is opening a chasm between the two communities that will prove difficult to bridge.
There was confusion as government soldiers, some ethnic Albanian and many with fear on their faces, moved into frontline positions in the town. In one case, an officer phoned superiors in a panic when his force came under moderate machine-gun fire, then withdrew.
Ethnic Slavs, who make up some 70 percent of the population overall but are a minority in Tetovo, cheered as three tanks rolled past in clouds of exhaust fumes.
In sharp contrast, ethnic Albanians angrily accused the Army of targeting civilians as well as rebel positions. "They think that every house is a bunker," complains Nuri Junozic.
Moderate Albanian parties - which analysts say may be the key to preventing an all-out civil war - had threatened to pull out of the fragile government coalition if the offensive went ahead. Already they are politically vulnerable, as support for the insurgency grows.
"There are different stories, different strategies, and different beliefs" that polarize the two communities, says an ethnic Slav observer in Tetovo, who asked not to be named. "Now it will escalate even more.... Some will be disappointed; some will ask for revenge, and we [on both sides] have many unstable people and many weapons," he says. "Everything is possible."
The government has vowed to "eliminate the terrorists," as it terms the rebels, and has rejected offers for peace talks. NATO and the West, including the United Nations Security Council, also describe the rebels as "terrorists," and are providing military and intelligence support to help defeat them, according to Macedonian officials.
Though small in number, the rebels are well armed, organized, and are dug into remote mountain positions among a sympathetic population -a scenario not unlike that faced by American GIs in Vietnam. US Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, Nato's supreme allied commander in Europe, last week told Congress that controlling such terrain is "enormously difficult."
Moreover, many guerrillas are hardened veterans of the 1998-'99 ethnic-Albanian fight against Serbian-led Yugoslav troops in Kosovo and have been inspired by their "victory" there, which was achieved through a 78-day NATO bombing campaign. On Friday, three top Kosovo-Albanian leaders called on the UCK to lay down their arms. But in Macedonia, which is tasting for the first time the type of ethnic conflict that has bedeviled every other former Yugoslav republic in the past decade, views are hardening amid the clouds of cordite.
Ali Ahmeti, identified as the rebels' political chief, has called for dialogue and declared that "we are not for a war that would create rivers of blood between two nations."
But recent events - including apparent rebel shelling of a Slav neighborhood on Saturday, and the killing of two ethnic Albanians by police on Thursday - have created new martyrs on both sides. While ethnic Slavs surveyed "their" damage, ethnic Albanians mourned the deaths of the father and son, gunned down after being stopped by police and stepping out of their car with grenades in their hands. Slavs say video footage - which shows the son trying to hurl a grenade - speaks for itself. "No one can deny that fact," says an ethnic Slav observer, who asked not to be named. "For me, these people are using weapons to achieve something, they are terrorists."
The official version on the Albanian side is that the son either had a mobile phone that was mistaken for a grenade, or that police - unseen by the rolling cameras - somehow planted grenades in the car.
"This is now the same as in Kosovo, where Albanians can no longer live with the Serbs," says an ethnic-Albanian man, who also would not be named. "If the police continue with this killing, then there will be no chance of averting a war." At their funeral on Friday, relative Sefer Beluli observed, "We can't live together. We can't be one nation anymore. This is the end."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor