NATO Chief: Macedonia Situation 'Critical'

The government gave ethnic Albanian rebels an ultimatum to pull back from around the country's second-largest city or face a new army offensive, as thousands of Macedonians streamed out of the city in packed cars and buses.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson called the situation "critical" and said he and the European Union's foreign policy chief would fly to Macedonia on Thursday for urgent mediation to prevent a descent into full-scale civil war.

More than 8,000 people fled the area of the northern city of Tetovo in the past 24 hours, the government said, most heading for the capital Skopje after fierce fighting Sunday and Monday shattered a fragile cease-fire.

The exodus widened after Macedonia's defense minister and interior minister today warned that military action was possible if the insurgents didn't retreat.

"Unless the rebels pull out to their previous positions ... we will no longer listen to suggestions from any Western mediator, and an offensive is not excluded as an option," the ministers said in a statement.

In Brussels, Belgium, Robertson urged restraint. "Any efforts to resolve the situation militarily can only result in the wreckage of the country and the inflicting of grave civilian casualties," he said.

More Ethnic Cleansing?

Overnight, mobs of Macedonians rampaged against foreign embassies in Skopje, accusing NATO of supporting the guerrillas. Protesters threw stones at the U.S. Embassy late Tuesday, smashed entrances of the British and German embassies and burned several U.N. and other cars.

The clashes around Tetovo were the worst in months and dimmed hopes that peace talks that collapsed last month could be revived. Those fleeing the city largely were ethnic Macedonians — who form a majority in the country but a minority in Tetovo.

One lifelong resident, Milina Stavreva, packed to leave today, vowing never to return. "Enough is enough," said Stavreva, 60. "We can no longer live here."

The militants launched their insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for minority ethnic Albanians, who account for up to a third of Macedonia's 2 million people. The government alleges the rebels are linked to militants in neighboring Kosovo and accuses them of trying to carve out territory from Macedonia.

"It makes no sense to continue the talks as long as the rebels are violating the cease-fire," government spokesman Antonio Milososki told The Associated Press. "If they don't return to their previous positions, we will force them to do so."

Macedonia Criticized

Britain's Foreign Office advised against all travel to Macedonia, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer strongly criticized the Macedonian government for stirring up anti-Western sentiment.

Fischer said government statements helped create "a violent domestic climate" and led to the embassy attacks.

On Tuesday, Milososki accused Western mediators of coordinating their efforts with the rebels and called NATO "a big friend of our enemies."

The NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo said today it had detained more than 60 suspected rebels from Macedonia, seizing weapons and ammunition after intercepting three separate mule trains along the rugged border.

Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski and Interior Minister Ljube Boskoski gave the rebels until noon Wednesday to pull back to their previous positions in Tetovo. That deadline passed with no sign of an offensive.

Ministry spokesman Marjan Gjurovski said army barracks and positions near Tetovo's soccer stadium came under fire until 2 a.m. today. Tetovo's hospital said five wounded were brought in overnight, and that they included civilians and military personnel.

Several police checkpoints around the city were taken by rebels, media reported.