Macedonia on Tuesday gave ethnic Albanian rebels a 24-hour ultimatum to surrender or withdraw from its territory as major powers heaped condemnation upon them and warned of their total isolation.
The Interior and Defence ministries said Macedonian troops would not fire on rebel positions at the town of Tetovo from midnight on Tuesday to midnight on Wednesday unless attacked.
"After this deadline, Macedonian security forces will continue using all its means against positions of terrorists until they are completely destroyed," it said.
A senior guerrilla commander contacted by Reuters said his fighters would ignore the deadline and threatened to take the battle into the streets of Tetovo.
The commander, codenamed Skopje, said his forces were confident that they could resist a threatened onslaught by Macedonian Army tanks and artillery. Morale was high, ammunition plentiful and casualties very slight, he said.
The ultimatum was issued hours after the army started using tanks to shell the rebel positions for the first time since the fighting at Tetovo started last Wednesday.
"The army got involved with all its power after 1600 hours (1500 GMT)," said an army source. "We expect results overnight," he added, as diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting continued.
European Union security chief Javier Solana, visiting Skopje to back the Macedonian government, told the rebels they would achieve nothing by force and advised his hosts not to start talk with the guerrillas.
"Nothing, and I mean nothing, will be obtained by violent means," Solana told reporters. "It is a mistake to negotiate with the terrorists and we do not recommend it," he added.
The six-power international Contact Group on the Balkans would show "zero tolerance" towards the gunmen, said Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini of Italy, a member of the group along with the United States, France, Germany, Britain and Russia.
A rebel commander earlier said his fighters over Tetovo were dug in and had not been dislodged by Macedonian gunfire.
"We are not afraid of them," Sadri Ahmeti, a leading member of the self-styled National Liberation Army, told Reuters at his base in the mountain village of Selce.
ALBANIAN MAINSTREAM DEPLORES REBELS
Macedonia's two main Albanian parties signed a statement in the presence of Solana urging ethnic Albanian guerrillas to lay down their arms and return to their homes.
"We call on the groups which have taken up arms on the territory of our state to lay down their arms and return to their homes peacefully," said the statement seen by Reuters.
"We condemn the use of force in pursuit of political objectives," the parties added in what Solana said was a very encouraging first step towards isolating the National Liberation Army.
Nearly 8,000 people have fled their homes in Macedonia to escape the fighting, with half of them crossing into Albania. Most went to friends and family, relief organisations said.
Reporters in Tetovo heard a steady boom of tank cannon and in the late afternoon saw thick smoke rising from woods and houses.
The army moved at least 10 Soviet-made tanks, hundreds of troops and artillery to Tetovo on Monday in what the authorities said was preparation for a final push against the rebels. So far there has been no sign of troops moving up the hill but heavy weapons fire has been heard coming from the valleys behind.
The seventh day of shooting began as troops with armoured personnel carriers directed long volleys of fire into two houses close to the Tetovo city football stadium, setting them ablaze. Police said there was a sniper in the vicinity.
Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski said Macedonian forces came under fire at two locations on Tuesday. He acknowledged the operation to retake the hill had not begun.
REBELS SAY THEY HAVEN'T MOVED
A government spokesman in Skopje said on Monday that security forces had destroyed the main guerrilla stronghold on a hill overlooking Tetovo, a town of around 70,000 people.
There was no independent confirmation of this claim and rebels denied they had lost any ground.
"We are able to stick to our positions because we are getting volunteers coming every day," said the NLA's Ahmeti.
Condemned by the West as a small group of extremists without broad popular support, the guerrillas say they are fighting for better rights for Albanians in Slav-dominated Macedonia.
Ethnic Albanians make up one-third of Macedonia's two million population. Foreign powers fear Macedonia could slide gradually into ethnic civil war unless violence stops.
A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said 2,300 ethnic Albanians have gone to Albania and a further 1,300 into Serbia, to wait out the crisis, while 4,000 more Macedonians were displaced within their country.
The UNHCR said there was no "mass movement" of refugees.
WESTERN SUPPORT FOR MACEDONIA
NATO said on Monday it was sending more troops to help prevent guerrillas infiltrating Macedonia from Kosovo, where the Western security alliance has 38,000 peacekeepers.
Solana, a former NATO chief and now the EU's security supremo, was the latest figure to visit Skopje to try to shore up the unsteady coalition government which is caught between the fighting and the resulting radicalisation of Macedonian Slavs.
Skopje complains it is not getting the backing it needs to fight the rebels, but there is deep reluctance in the West to get involved in another military campaign in the Balkans.
The leaders of Germany and France jointly demanded an end to the conflict in Macedonia and declared support for its government at talks on Tuesday.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was due in Skopje to try to coordinate Moscow's position with Balkan leaders and with the West. Ukraine confirmed it had transferred four military transport helicopters to Macedonia, which has no air force.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday the violence in Macedonia was slipping out of control and only decisive international action could stop the fighting.