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Macedonia Mourns Eight Police Killed In Battle Against Gunmen

  • RFE/RL's Balkan Service

Macedonia is observing a second day of national mourning for eight police officers killed during a weekend battle against gunmen in the northern town of Kumanovo, in the largely ethnic-Albanian district of Diva Naselba.

Flags were flying at half-staff across the country on May 11, and sports events and political gatherings had been canceled.

Residents were returning to their homes but schools remain closed in Kumanovo, a town near Macedonia's borders with Kosovo and Serbia.

Macedonian media reports say the smell of smoke is still heavy in the air around scenes of scattered gun cartridges, charred furniture, and destroyed homes.

Authorities have brought terrorism-related charges against some 30 of the gunmen who surrendered, and the defendants were appearing before an investigating magistrate in the capital, Skopje, on May 11.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said 14 suspected gunmen were killed in the battle, which began early on May 9.

In a nationally televised appearance late on May 10, Ivanov said police had "prevented coordinated terrorist attacks at different locations in the country that would [have caused] serious destabilization, chaos, and fear."

He said the gunmen were "extremists and criminals with remarkable military training and skills."

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski named five alleged leaders of the armed group, all citizens of Kosovo.

Albanian Minority

Gruevski said the gunmen had combat experience in the Balkans and the Middle East but were not supported by members of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority.

"This is not a Macedonian-Albanian conflict, because that would be harmful to both Macedonians and Albanians in the region," Gruevski said.

The restive Albanian minority, making up between 25 and 30 percent of Macedonia's population of 2.1 million people, rebelled for more rights in 2001.

Macedonia was on the verge of civil war when NATO and the European Union brokered a peace-and-reform agreement aimed at improving the position of ethnic Albanians.

Following the violence on May 9-10, police lined Belgrade's Skopje highway, a main European route that runs by Kumanovo before crossing the Macedonia-Serbia border some 5 kilometers to the south.

Armed police are patrolling the airport in Skopje, some 30 kilometers to the north.

The deadly fighting came as Macedonia faces its deepest political crisis since independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. The government and the opposition have each accused the other of plotting to destabilize the country, and some analysts fear leaders on both sides are ready to provoke ethnic clashes.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and independent.mk
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