bne IntelliNews -
At least 22 people were killed in more than 24 hours of fighting between police and a terrorist group in the Macedonian settlement of Kumanovo on May 9 and 10.
This was the worst outbreak of violence in the country since the inter-ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians ended in 2001, and comes at a time when Macedonia’s political stability is already threatened by the deepening rift between government and opposition.
The Macedonian interior ministry said in a May 9 statement that police had launched an operation in Kumanovo after receiving intelligence that a terrorist group was planning a series of attacks on civilian and government targets in the country.
The fighting took place in a mainly ethnic Albanian district of Kumanovo, 40 kilometres north of the capital Skopje and close to Macedonia’s borders with Kosovo and Serbia.
According to the ministry, police attacked with grenades, machine guns and snipers. Most of the group was defeated by the evening of May 9, but others kept up a fierce attack upon police. Sporadic outbreaks of gunfire were heard from the district until the afternoon of May 10, according to Reuters. A heavy police presence has remained in Kumanovo.
The group has been “fully neutralized and eliminated”, interior ministry spokesman Ivo Koteski told a press conference on May 10.
Eight police officers and at least 14 terrorists were killed in the fighting, although police expect that more bodies may be recovered. Over 37 police officers and an unknown number of terrorists were injured.
Koteski told journalists that the group had infiltrated Macedonia from a “neighbouring state”. While the state was not named, Koteski added that all five of the group’s leaders were from Kosovo. However, all but one of the 30 suspected terrorists who surrendered to police are Macedonian nationals.
Koteski described the group as “one of the most dangerous terrorist groups to threaten the entire region, which over the years has been involved in numerous attacks”.
Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski told a separate press conference that a “large and well armed group of terrorists” had entered the country and “were planning mass murder in Macedonia with the goal of destabilising the country”, according to Macedonian news service MIA.
Macedonian government officials indicated that members of the same group had been behind the attack on a checkpoint on the Macedonia-Kosovo border on April 21. The attack was carried out by a group of around 40 armed men wearing camouflage uniform with the insignia of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), according to the interior ministry. Initially the group was thought to have crossed the border from Kosovo, but subsequent police raids in villages near the border post indicated that at least some of the group were from within Macedonia.
The Macedonian government has declared two days of national mourning. President Gjorge Ivanov plans to hold a meeting of the national security council on the evening of May 10, and will also meet with government and opposition leaders.
The recent incidents are the most serious threat to the delicate ethnic balance within Macedonia in 14 years, when conflict between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians ended with the signing of the 2001 Ohrid agreement. Albanians make up around a quarter of Macedonia’s 2mn population. In the current government, they are represented by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE’s junior coalition partner the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).
The weekend of violence has raised concerns among international observers and within Southeast Europe. European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Johannes Hahn said in a May 9 statement that he was “deeply concerned” over the situation in the Kumanovo region. “I urge the authorities and all political and community leaders to cooperate, to restore calm and fully investigate the events in an objective and transparent manner within the Law ... I urge all actors for utmost restraint. Any further escalation must be avoided, not the least in the interest of the overall stability in the country,” Hahn said.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that restoring security was of “paramount importance”. “We believe that the safety of the local population is of crucial importance,” said the acting head of the OSCE mission to Skopje, Marianne Berecz. “We are in constant contact with all relevant authorities and urge all citizens and political parties to remain calm. The immediate and urgent priority is to avoid any escalation which could lead to further violence.”
Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said on May 9 that security along the country’s border with Macedonia had been stepped up, broadcaster B92 reported. Other neighbouring countries including Albania and Bulgaria have also expressed concern over the events in Macedonia and appealed for calm.
Pristina has not responded to the Macedonian statement that the group’s leaders were from Kosovo. In a May 9 statement, the Kosovan foreign ministry simply said that it “condemns the violation of order and security by any individual or group with destabilizing aims in Macedonia” and “urges all parties to refrain from violence”.
The fighting in Kumanovo follows three days of sometimes violent protests in Skopje on May 5-7. The demonstrations started on the evening of May 5, shortly after Zoran Zaev, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), claimed at a press conference that Gruevski and Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska had tried to cover up the death of 21-year-old Martin Neskovski in 2011. Neskovski was beaten to death by a policeman when VMRO-DPMNE supporters were celebrating the party’s victory in the June 2011 parliament election.
Around 2,000 people turned out on May 5, according to the SDSM, and smaller demonstrations took place on the following days. The SDSM plans to keep up the pressure on the government, with the next protest planned for May 17.
Zaev’s May 5 statement was the latest revelation from an SDSM dossier dubbed “the bomb”, that the party has been gradually releasing over the last four months in an attempt to force Gruevski’s government to resign. In February, Zaev accused Gruevski of ordering a massive wiretapping campaign that targeted more than 20,000 Macedonian citizens. Most MPs from the SDSM have boycotted the parliament since the April 2014 general elections, which they claim were rigged.
Gruevski has denied the allegations, and says the tapes produced by Zaev were “created and edited” by the SDSM. On April 30, the Macedonian prosecutor’s office announced it had formally indicted Zaev and several others for their involvement in the surveillance scandal.
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