TETOVO - Tanks have shelled the hills around Macedonia's second city in a savage counter-offensive that has seen the most serious fighting yet between the country's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.



It is feared the growing violence could soon trigger a full-scale civil war.



A series of blasts was clearly visible in the hills above Tetovo as terrified residents scurried for cover below.



The hills had been occupied by Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA-UCK) for the past week.

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The Macedonian army was firing indiscriminately and several of the rising columns of smoke came from civilian houses.



There was no word on casualties, but the risk to civilians was high. The hills around Tetovo are dotted with houses and it was not clear if they had all been evacuated.



A short time after the start of the Government offensive, the Macedonian army issued an ultimatum, giving "the terrorists" 24 hours to cease hostilities and surrender, or leave Macedonia.



"After this deadline, Macedonian security forces will continue using all their means against positions of terrorists until they are completely destroyed," it said.



It was the first time that tanks had been used. The shells were being fired so close to the city you could feel the air slapping off the buildings from the blast.



The Macedonian onslaught began just hours after the rebels offered to join peace talks.



The guerrillas had warned that their attacks would continue if the Macedonian Government did not respond to their offer.



The Government's response was the huge flames leaping from the crown of Baltepe hill and the shattering explosions that rebounded off the rooftops of Tetovo.



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