SKOPJE, Macedonia – An army truck hit a land mine close to Skopje on Friday, killing at least eight Macedonian soldiers in an explosion that threatened a tentative deal to avert all-out war, the Defense Ministry said.
Another six soldiers were injured in the explosion six miles north of the capital, near the villages of Ljubanci and Ljuboten, when a convoy of army trucks drove over a freshly planted land mine, a Defense Ministry official said. State radio confirmed the report.
Fighting between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces erupted soon after in the area. Ethnic Albanian sources in Ljuboten said at least one house was leveled in the ethnic Albanian village, which was sealed off by government troops.
A villager, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity, said government forces were using two helicopter gunships to shell the village, whose hundreds of residents were hiding in basements.
The region close to the capital has not previously been involved in clashes that started in February. Heavy detonations of mortar and artillery fire could be heard in Skopje.
The incident further jeopardizes a tentative peace plan reached Wednesday, the same day as a rebel ambush that killed 10 Macedonian soldiers.
There was trouble elsewhere in Macedonia on Friday as government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels exchanged gunfire on the outskirts of Macedonia's second-largest city, Tetovo.
On Thursday, the government used tanks and heavy artillery to pound rebel positions in the suburbs of the northern Macedonian city. Sukhoi SU-25 ground attack jets flew overhead, but were not used in the fighting, witnesses said.
A government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government will use "all available means" to evict rebels from Tetovo.
Speaking in Sofia, Bulgaria, U.S. envoy James Pardew said a political solution to Macedonia's conflict is still possible. He was optimistic a peace deal would be signed Monday in Skopje, as agreed to by Macedonia's rival parties.
"No one supports the Albanian extremists, certainly not the United States, nor any of our European allies," said Pardew, who helped oversee the peace talks. "The use of force by the Albanian extremists in Macedonia is unacceptable and totally rejected by the United States."
Funerals for the 10 soldiers killed in Wednesday's attack were planned for Friday in the southern Macedonian city of Prilep, the victims' hometown.
The rebels have been fighting since February, saying they want greater rights for minority ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia's 2 million people.
Macedonia's government has repeatedly said the movement must be quashed and insisted even after accepting the tentative peace deal that force was necessary to regain rebel-held territory.
A Western-designed peace plan grants the restive ethnic Albanian minority a greater role in police, parliament and education. Some 3,500 NATO soldiers would disarm the rebels, but only after the rival sides fully agree on the deal.
The rebels were not represented at the Western-led negotiations.
"The peace agreement will benefit the Albanian population as well as the Macedonian population," Pardew said. "Everyone who continues this war after a peaceful solution has been found is doing a huge disservice to the Albanian people."