EU alarmed as deadly battle deepens Macedonia crisis

Unstable ex-Yugoslav state says Kosovar-led group planned major terror attacks

Relatives of killed policeman Sasho Samoilovski carry his coffin covered in Macedonian flag before his funeral in Tetovo, Macedonia, today. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

Relatives of killed policeman Sasho Samoilovski carry his coffin covered in Macedonian flag before his funeral in Tetovo, Macedonia, today. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

 

The European Union has expressed concern over the stability of Macedonia, after a battle between police and gunmen killed at least 22 people and dramatically deepened a political crisis in the ex-Yugoslav republic.

Helicopters circled and gunfire and explosions shook Kumanovo, a town near Macedonia’s border with Serbia and Kosovo, from dawn on Saturday until Sunday afternoon, when officials said “one of the most dangerous terrorists groups in the Balkans” had been subdued.

Interior ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said eight policemen were killed and 37 injured in the fighting, while at least 14 gunmen died and 30 were arrested.

“We lost eight men who prevented the murder of possibly 8,000,” said prime minister Nikola Gruevski.

“A terrorist group of well over 40 well-armed people entered Macedonia illegally . . . planning to carry out large-scale attacks against state institutions and civilian targets, such as police stations, shopping malls and sports events.”

Mr Gruevski said some of the gunmen had “enormous experience in guerrilla and terror tactics” and had fought in the Balkans and the Middle East.

The interior ministry said the group mostly comprised Macedonians but was led by veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic-Albanian group that battled Serb forces in a 1998-9 war that ultimately led to Kosovo’s independence.

Officials said information suggested the Kumanovo group was involved in an attack on a Macedonian police post near Kosovo in late April, which at the time was blamed on ethnic-Albanians who supposedly demanded their own state.

In 2001, ethnic-Albanian guerrillas launched a brief insurgency against the Macedonian government, which was quelled by a western-brokered peace deal that promised more rights and powers for ethnic-Albanians, who make up almost one-third of the country’s two-million population.

Some are unhappy with implementation of the deal, however, and the unrest has rekindled fears of tension between ethnic-Albanians and the majority Slavs.

Mr Gruevski called for unity and insisted the gun battle was “not a confrontation between Macedonians and Albanians”.

Critics questioned the nature and timing of the operation, however, with some suggesting it could be intended to divert attention from the government’s travails.

Over several months, opposition leader Zoran Zaev has published transcripts of wiretapped conversations between ministers, the chief of secret police, state prosecutors, journalists and media bosses, which reveal the extent of state eavesdropping and covert control over major institutions, the judiciary and media.

Mr Zaev says he received the transcripts from disaffected whistleblowers in the intelligence services, but Mr Gruevski and his allies say an unnamed state is involved, and the opposition leader has been charged with plotting a coup.

Critics accuse Mr Gruevski (44), who has been in power since 2006, of trying to silence dissenting political and media voices, and dozens of people were injured when anti-government protests turned violent last week in the capital, Skopje.

“I am deeply concerned at the unfolding situation in the Kumanovo region,” said the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn.

“Any further escalation must be avoided, not the least in the interest of the overall stability in the country.”