Macedonia swayed between an army offensive and a guerrilla truce on Thursday after the government declined to respond directly to a unilateral ceasefire declared by ethnic Albanian rebels.
A midnight deadline for the guerrillas to quit positions in the mountains above the city of Tetovo expired 15 minutes after President Boris Trajkovski, following talks with political leaders, said: "We agreed not to comment" on the truce.
The rebels' declaration of a "unilateral, unlimited ceasefire" was made just five hours before the ultimatum ran out. They proposed talks on a peaceful solution to the crisis threatening civil war in the former Yugoslav republic.
The Macedonian Army and Interior Ministry special police force have been poised since Tuesday to launch an all-out offensive. Trajkovski indicated nothing had been ruled out.
"We have agreed on the need to neutralise the terrorist threat quickly and efficiently and to condemn the use of violence to achieve political goals," he told reporters.
"We have agreed that the Army should take full control of the whole border and (NATO's Kosovo peace force) KFOR should do the same on the other side.
"After the end of the operation to neutralise the armed terrorists, we have agreed to intensify the political dialogue with all legitimate political parties on the open questions in inter-ethnic relations," the president said.
The government appeared to have been given a green light for tough action earlier this week by Western powers, who have strongly condemned the rebels as a small group of extremists bent on fomenting civil war in pursuit of separatist aims. European Union security supremo Javier Solana said after talks with the Macedonian government on Tuesday that there should be "no negotiations" with the gunmen.
Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said six major powers which have dealt with Balkan crises for most of the past decade would show "zero tolerance" for deliberate ethnic violence.
NATO reinforced patrols on the Macedonian border with Kosovo to block arms and supplies reaching the gunmen from what is regarded as their rear base.
But the guerrilla truce declaration, coming on the heels of truculent statements of defiance, was a major surprise.
It could not be ruled out that the Macedonian government would urgently seek consultations with the West before deciding to match the ceasefire or commit its forces irrevocably.
That did not mean that Thursday would be quiet.
In Tetovo, a Reuters reporter said the night was calm and there was no sound of gunfire or sign of troop movements.
"We think it is better to talk rather than start a fight between the two peoples because blood will be shed and then there will be no room for talks," said Ali Ahmeti, the political spokesman for the National Liberation Army (NLA).
"In order to pave the way for a peaceful solution, the NLA declares an unlimited, unilateral ceasefire," he told Kosovo's RTK television, broadcast from Pristina.
Ahmeti said the guerrillas would not abandon their positions in the mountainous hinterland behind Tetovo, scene of heavy bombardment by government forces for the past week.
"We shall respond to force if fired upon," Ahmeti said.
An aide later told Reuters the ceasefire decision was "made unanimously by the general staff of the UCK (NLA)".
"There has been extraordinary cooperation between all commanders in the last 48 hours. It is not true to say that regional commanders might not respect the ceasefire," said the aide to Ahmeti, who declined to have his name published. Ahmeti told RTK the guerrillas were spread all over Macedonia but had refrained from using force because they wanted to open the way to dialogue and good understanding.
"If just one position of ours is endangered by our opponents, then all our forces will swing into action," he said.
He rejected the label "terrorist". The NLA was fighting to make Albanians "equals among equals" in predominantly Slav Macedonia, Ahmeti insisted.