ARACINOVO, Macedonia – More than 7,000 ethnic Albanians had fled to Kosovo from a suburb of Macedonia's capital by Sunday, with thousands of other residents also seeking refuge, as government forces waited for orders to attack well-armed rebels who have seized the town.
Dozens of residents peered through binoculars toward their homes from a police checkpoint a little more than a mile from Aracinovo, where Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski said approximately 1,000 ethnic Albanian militants armed with light artillery and machine guns "control all strategic points."
More than 7,000 ethnic Albanians had fled to neighboring Kosovo, said Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 29,000 have fled there since an ethnic Albanian insurgency erupted in February, she said.
The threat to Aracinovo, an ethnically mixed town, also drove out thousands of Macedonian Slavs.
Locals said that only a few thousand people remained in the town, where the normal population of about 13,000 had grown in recent weeks to 20,000 due to an influx of refugees coming from fought-over areas elsewhere.
Aracinovo, southeast of Skopje, was calm Sunday. Police blocked roads around the suburb to try contain the rebels, opening the checkpoints only to fleeing civilians. Boskovski said Saturday that security forces were waiting for a government order to start retaking the suburb.
Some fighting was reported Sunday to the north around Slupcane and Orizane, a strategically important rebel-held region.
Insurgents there control a reservoir that normally supplies about 100,000 residents of Kumanovo with water. Since the rebels cut off water supplies nearly a week ago, Kumanovo's population has been supplied with tanker trucks from Macedonia and neighboring Bulgaria.
Violence erupted when the militants took up arms, saying they were fighting for broader rights for ethnic Albanians, who make up between a quarter and a third of Macedonia's 2 million people. The government, which contends they are separatists bent on seizing territory, launched an offensive to drive them from northern villages where the rebels are based.
Trying to avert a new escalation of the conflict, political leaders met Saturday with Javier Solana, the European Union's security affairs chief, who urged restraint.
Western governments have condemned the insurgents and have urged both sides to avoid an all-out war in Macedonia — until this year the only former Yugoslav republic to escape bloodshed.