The trial of 29 people charged with planning terrorist activities related to deadly clashes in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo last May started on February 9. The suspects have pleaded not guilty of terrorism.
The Kumanovo clashes were the worst outbreak of violence in the country since the inter-ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians ended in 2001. The authorities say the group had planned large scale terrorist attacks in Kumanovo and other cities, aiming to destabilise Macedonia at a time of high political tensions. The trial started under tightened security measures.
The clashes between a group of 40 ethnic Albanians from Macedonia and Kosovo and the police in the north-eastern town of Kumanovo left 18 dead including 10 police officers. Forty-two people were seriously injured in the fighting on May 9-10.
According to the indictment, on April 21, 2015, the group attacked police stations in Gosince, northern Macedonia, where they stole weapons before staging the attack in Kumanovo in May.
29 members of the armed group, of which the majority are Kosovan citizens, are charged with planning terrorist attacks in various locations in Macedonia.
The leaders of the group and those who carried out the attack were mostly Kosovan citizens, while those responsible for the logistics were mainly ethnic Albanians from Macedonia, news agency MIA reported on February 9.
"I partially plead guilty, but I reject accusations of being a terrorist," defendant Sami Ukshini, the first on the list of those indicted, was quoted by broadcaster Alfa. All the other defendants pleaded not guilty of terrorism or being part of a terrorist organisation, even though some of them acknowledged they were part of the armed group.
The first court session lasted six hours and the next will be held on February 11, according to broadcaster Telma.
A lot of speculation about the attack has appeared in the local media, including rumours that members of the Macedonian secret services were in contact with the leaders of the armed group before the attack.
The defendants' lawyer, Naser Raufi, argued that the Kumanovo clashes were aimed at distracting the public from a damaging dossier of information released by the opposition SDSM party, in which the party accused government officials of corruption, broadcaster A1on reported.
The local population is divided over whether the trial will affect inter-ethnic relations in Macedonia where one quarter of the population are ethnic Albanians, or relations with neighbouring Kosovo. However, most think that trail will not affect the interethnic relations at all.
“What happened in Kumanovo was an act perpetrated by an isolated group of terrorists,” Gjole Trajkoski, a Skopje resident, told bne IntelliNews, adding that the way the attack was conducted “seems really strange”. Trajkoski considered that given the intense international diplomatic monitoring of the situation in Macedonia there is no real chance of further destabilisation.
A Skopje pensioner told bne IntelliNews that he did not expect the trial to damage relations with Kosovo. “If the perpetrators are guilty there is no reason for relations between the two countries to be damaged. Nearly ten months has passed since then and relations are good,” he said.
For local residents, Macedonia’s deep economic problems, namely high level of unemployment and low living standards, are more pressing.
Vlado Manchevsky, a blogger from Skopje, believes the trial could still affect neighbourly relations with Kosovo and with ethnic Albanians living in Macedonia, leading to new tensions, but only if it is not conducted transparently and justly.
He considers that given the economic and political situation in the country, the crisis may deepen further, and all scenarios are possible. “Personally I think that the animosity between ethnic Albanians and the Macedonian population is at a surprisingly low level, which gives some hope, but still all options are possible,” Manchevsky said.