Five police officers were killed and 30 injured in clashes with unidentified gunmen believed to have crossed into the Albanian-majority area of a northern Macedonian town from Kosovo. Gunfire and explosions lasted for over 15 hours.
So far, Macedonian officials have refused to divulge any details
about the armed group, only saying that they were well equipped
with sniper rifles and bombs.
“Five police officers were killed in a shootout with
terrorists” and another thirty were injured in the northern
town of Kumanovo, Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska told
reporters on Saturday.
It is still unknown if there were any civilian casualties or how
many of the gunmen were killed during the operation. “There
are victims among the terrorists but for the time being we cannot
give the exact number,” Jankuloska added.
Local Albanian media reported that five armed men were killed
during the clashes. Around 30 of the militants surrendered, while
another 15 gunmen were reportedly able to escape.
Police revealed that the armed group illegally entered Macedonia
from a neighboring state, without providing any more details.
Local media suggest that the group came from Kosovo, which is
populated mostly by ethnic Albanians.
Interior ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said that someone in the
local population was providing shelter to the armed group.
The violence was triggered during a police raid in the area.
Officers faced “violent resistance” from snipers,
grenades and automatic weapons, according to police.
“This is a risky operation because it is an area with narrow
streets and police need to perform house-to-house searches very
carefully,” Kotevski told AFP.
Armored vehicles reportedly sealed off one of the town’s suburbs
and helicopters were heard whirring overhead.
The gunmen were planning to carry out attacks on state
institutions, Jankuloska said.
Local residents, mostly women, children and the elderly, were
seen evacuating. “I thought it would never come to this
again,” an unidentified ethnic Albanian man told Macedonian
television. “It’s so scary, we can’t stay here.”
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov was forced to cut his trip to
Moscow short to deal with the incident.
It comes as the government is under domestic pressure, being
accused of illegal wire-tapping. The country’s capital, Skopje,
witnessed thousands of protesters clashing with police on
Macedonia went through an ethnic uprising when rebels demanding
more rights for ethnic Albanians took up arms against the
government in 2001. The conflict was quelled by a peace
agreement, which guaranteed greater recognition of Albanians.
Tensions in the area have remained, however.
The most recent incident happened less than three weeks ago when
around 40 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo took control of the
Macedonian police station on the northern border for a short
period of time. They called for the creation of an Albanian state
Kosovo effectively split from Serbia after NATO’s bombing of
Yugoslavia in 1999, an operation launched without UN consent.
NATO intervened in a years-long ethnic conflict between Albanian
separatists and the Serbs, which at the end of the 90s saw
Yugoslavian armed forces fighting the rebel Kosovo Liberation
Army. Both sides carried out crimes based on ethnicity. Today the
non-Albanian population in Kosovo continues to be persecuted
despite the UN peacekeeping force there. Major incidents compared
to ethnic cleansing still occur, including significant unrest in
Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed its independence from Serbia in
2008, but remains only a partially recognized state. Macedonia
has recognized Kosovo in a move believed to be connected with its
own ethnic tensions with Albanian residents and insurgents.