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Government's Claims About Macedonia Terrorist Group Met Skeptically

Students gather to protest against police brutality in Skopje on May 8. Leaked wiretaps suggesting rampant abuse of office have led some to suspect the Kumanovo incident was "too suspicious."

Students gather to protest against police brutality in Skopje on May 8. Leaked wiretaps suggesting rampant abuse of office have led some to suspect the Kumanovo incident was "too suspicious."

SKOPJE -- Ethnically motivated terrorism is nothing new in the Balkans. But neither are authoritarian governments willing to exploit ethnic tensions to push their own agendas.

Macedonians are mindful of these facts as they come to grips with a deadly shoot-out between security forces and purported terrorists in the town of Kumanovo, near the country's borders with Kosovo and Serbia.

Even as the country on May 11 held a second day of mourning for police officers killed in the incident, the details remained sketchy.

But the security challenge comes against the background of a major political crisis in Macedonia that has rocked confidence in the government's motives. Recent releases of tapped phone conversations seem to show a government that will stop at little to maintain its grip on power.

Eight police were killed and 27 wounded in the predawn raid on May 9 against a "terrorist group" of ethnic Albanians. According to Macedonian officials, 14 alleged militants were killed and 30 captured in the Kumanovo action. A large cache of weapons was also reportedly seized.

"One of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Balkans has been neutralized," an Interior Ministry spokesman told journalists in Skopje on May 9. He said the militants planned to attack state institutions across the country.

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said on May 10 that the police "managed to neutralize the terrorists who planned mass murder in Macedonia, aimed at its destabilization."

At the same time, a statement published in the Albanian press purportedly by a group called the National Liberation Army said the raid targeted its fighters but said it would continue its "ongoing fight for the freedom and national dignity" of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.

Just Criminals, Mercenaries?

But some locals in Kumanovo and analysts are not so sure about the government's version of events.

"If this is a terrorist group, as the Interior Ministry claims, they would need logistical support from the local population if they want to achieve any goals," says Vladimir Pivovarov, a former Macedonian intelligence officer. "In addition, they would need support from the international community if they want to achieve something, some [ethnic-minority] rights. The international community has said for years that there is no possibility of changing the borders [to create Greater Albania]. So that's why this is not clear."

He adds that further investigation is needed to determine if the alleged militants were actually an organized-crime gang or if they were really politically motivated.

Skopje-based political analyst Nasser Ziberi also doubts that the Kumanovo gang had any real connections to Albanian political forces. "I do not see any political support from any Albanian political platform," he tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "Most probably, they are a group of mercenaries. I have heard reports like that. Perhaps their goal is connected to the action of jihadi groups in Bosnia and so on. But I do not see an Albanian political option."

PHOTO GALLERY: Aftermath of Kumanovo violence:

...Or A Desperate Government?

The Kumanovo shoot-out comes against the background of a mounting political crisis for Macedonia's government. For months now, Zoran Zaev, the head of the main opposition Social Democrats (SDSM), has been releasing leaked wiretaps that have implicated the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party in several abuse-of-power scandals -- including allegations that it covered up the 2011 killing of a student by an officer of a special police unit called the Tigers.

Although Macedonia's state-controlled media have given little coverage to the Zaev leaks, an estimated 1,000 protesters -- mostly students -- took to the streets on May 5-6 calling for Gruevski's resignation.

WATCH: New video released of gunbattle

In this context, "to many observers, the timing [of the Kumanovo incident] just seems too suspicious," London School of Economics and Political Science researcher James Ker-Lindsay says in an online interview.

"Questions are being asked as to whether the government has somehow orchestrated this in order to divert attention away from the growing scandal," he says. "Given the evidence of serious wrongdoings by the government, many people believe that the administration is more than capable of staging a terrorist attack in order to stay in power."

Russia's Foreign Ministry, in a May 9 statement, accepted Skopje's interpretation of the Kumanovo events and seemed to place the violence in the context of Moscow's own strained relations with the West.

"The choice of some opposition movements and nongovernmental organizations -- including some that were inspired by the West -- in favor of the logic of the street and the notorious scenario of 'colored revolutions' is fraught with dangerous consequences," the Russian statement said. "They could intensify interethnic divisions in multiethnic Macedonia and the surrounding regions in the Balkans, which in the late 1990s and early 2000s went through serious conflicts."

Kumanovo is located about 40 kilometers northeast of Skopje, close to the borders with Serbia and Kosovo. It is within the so-called Kosovo Triangle, a center of ethnic Albanian organized crime. The region is believed to be a transit location for heroin shipments on their way to Western Europe, and some of the profits of the drug trade have allegedly been used to fund pro-Albanian militant groups in the past, including the defunct Kosovo Liberation Army.

Macedonia's population of about 2 million consists of 64 percent ethnic Macedonians, who are Orthodox Slavs, and about 25 percent ethnic Albanians, who are predominantly Muslims. It also has significant Turkish, Romany, Serbian, and Bosniak minorities.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Bucharest-based political scientist Franz-Lothar Altmann urged the government to enter into "unconditional talks with the opposition."

"Otherwise," Altmann said, "Macedonia's democracy, weak as it already is, will end up in a national catastrophe."

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to