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Macedonia: Police In Shootout With 'Suspected Terrorists'

Macedonian police over the weekend shot dead seven men whom they suspect were terrorists from Pakistan. However, as RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, some groups have voiced skepticism over the official explanation, and the incident has ratcheted up tensions.

Prague, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian police over the weekend shot dead seven men whom they suspect were terrorists from Pakistan collaborating with ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

The official version of events is that a four-man Macedonian police patrol observed the seven getting out of a minivan on a dirt road at Rastanski Lozja in the Black Mountains between Skopje and the Kosovo border. The incident happened at about four o'clock Saturday (2 March) morning.

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski later told reporters the seven men were armed and opened fire after the police warned them to surrender. "This group was eliminated. That means the seven were killed. In all likelihood they were foreigners. The autopsies will show this."

The police patrol, which was armed with automatic weapons and Kalashnikov rifles, suffered no injuries in the shooting.

Boskovski says the police were aware of the existence of the seven after detaining four other suspected terrorists -- two Jordanians and two Bosnian Muslims -- two weeks ago near the U.S. ambassador's residence in Skopje. Boskovski called them "mujahedin."

Police say computer diskettes seized with the four were found to have 10,000 pages of documents, some of which police say contained evidence of planning for terrorist attacks in the region.

The interior minister says the four had plans for terrorist attacks on foreign embassies in Skopje as well as on senior Macedonian government officials, including Albanians.

Boskovski says security has been tightened at the U.S., British, and German embassies. However, judging from comments by U.S. and German diplomats, the Macedonian authorities appear not to be sharing their intelligence with these embassies.

Boskovski says police on 2 March found in the minivan four assault rifles, eight hand grenades, a variety of rocket launchers, two rockets, two pistols, a field radio, and several uniforms of the ethnic Albanian insurgent National Liberation Army (UCK). They also say they found documents written in Arabic and a small amount of Turkish currency.

Boskovski said based on identification documents found with the group, two of the men were Pakistanis with previous fighting experience in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

This is not the first time Boskovski has sought to make a link between Islamic terrorists and the UCK. He did so repeatedly without offering any proof during last year's seven-month armed conflict.

Macedonia's chief coroner, Aleksej Duma, says autopsies conducted on the seven failed to identify them conclusively. He said, "They were all young, nobody older than 30, all dark-skinned and circumcised." Some of the dead men are reported to have had traces of gunpowder on their hands.

Some local news reports have suggested that at least two of the seven men were Albanians. However, this has been rejected by Macedonia's deputy interior minister, Refet Elmazi, in an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages (SSAL) Service: "According to the pathologists, they are foreigners, not Albanians."

The former UCK has rejected any connection with the men. The group's former political commander, Ali Ahmeti, in an interview yesterday with the Kosovo daily "Koha Ditore," said "the shootout had nothing at all to do with the UCK." The Albanian-language daily describes the shootout as "a set-up by Boskovski."

Another UCK commander, who goes by the name of "Sokoli" told Kosovo public television (RTK) that he believes the incident was a "set-up" because "you can see the uniforms were brand-new and somewhat different from the ones former UCK soldiers used to wear."

The former UCK's military chief of staff, commander Gezim Ostreni, said in an interview with RFE/RL's SSAL Service today that there are reasons to suspect that this latest incident may even be an attempt by Macedonian nationalists to increase tensions so as to prevent parliament from declaring and implementing an amnesty for former UCK insurgents. He too rejects any sort of Albanian connection to the seven.

"I think that claims that some of them are Albanians are false. The National Liberation Army (UCK) has not existed since 26 September (when it formally disbanded itself) after reaching agreements with the Macedonian government, NATO, and others. There is no link between these events [on 2 March] and the UCK."

Ostreni says former UCK commanders have no idea who the seven men were and that it is up to the Interior Ministry to say what actually happened. He too rejects suggestions the Albanians are waging a religious war.

"It's not true. The UCK is not waging a religious war. We have been against the war in Macedonia. Our efforts have been aimed at respecting dignity, respecting the human rights of Albanians -- this was the essence of our struggle."

It's not clear yet when the authorities will offer a fuller explanation of who the seven were and exactly what happened.