TETOVO, Macedonia -- An ominous calm settled over Macedonia's second-largest city Wednesday after government forces handed ethnic Albanian rebels an ultimatum giving them 24 hours to end their insurrection or face all-out assault.
Setting up a potential showdown, a rebel commander who gave his name only as Sokoli told local media in neighboring Kosovo on Wednesday that the insurgents had no intention of surrendering.
"If our demands are not met, we will not move away," he said. "We are prepared to defend ourselves from any kind of attack. We are aware that we could have casualties, but this will not make us leave our positions."
Ahead of Tuesday evening's ultimatum announcement, artillery pounded the hills outside in a joint army and police counteroffensive against the insurgents camped outside Tetovo. The military stopped its assault later in the evening, and the calm held overnight and into Wednesday morning.
The army's ultimatum demanded that the "terrorists" stop fighting and surrender or leave Macedonia. The military said it would refrain from "offensive" actions until midnight Wednesday, although it said it reserved the right to shoot in self-defense.
After that, it said, the armed forces would resume their offensive if the ultimatum were ignored.
The rebels say they are a homegrown movement fighting for greater rights in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are outnumbered by Slavs three to one. But the government claims they are linked to fighters across the border in Kosovo and aim to break off northern Macedonia to form an independent ethnic Albanian state.
Although Tetovo remained quiet, rebels active in the volatile buffer zone with Kosovo unleashed mortar attacks on Serb police Wednesday, the government said in a statement. It said there were nearly a dozen other scattered attacks in that area over the past 24 hours.
In a significant boost to government efforts to win the upper hand, two major ethnic Albanian political parties Tuesday announced their backing for a peaceful end to the conflict.
"We condemn the use of force for political gains -- there is no place for something like that in civilized democratic states," read the declaration signed by the Democratic Albanian Party and the Democratic Prosperity Party.
Separately, Arben Xhafari, whose Democratic Albanian Party is a member of the Slav-dominated government coalition, denied rumors his party was leaving the government, but warned it might do so if violence escalated.
The U.N. Security Council was debating a new resolution that would condemn extremist violence in Macedonia and southern Serbia. The draft, proposed by France, calls on rebels to lay down their arms and stresses the need to solve differences through dialogue. But Russia was pressing for stronger language singling out the rebels' actions.
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