SPECIAL police units backed up by helicopters killed at least seven Albanians yesterday in a major operation in Macedonia aimed at recapturing a former rebel fighter who escaped from prison in neighbouring Kosovo.
The operation was the largest of its kind since Macedonia faced seven months of ethnic conflict and near civil war in 2001.
The interior ministry said the action lasted all day, in and around the village of Brodec, north-west of the Albanian-dominated city of Tetovo.
The aim was to capture Lirim Jakupi, a former member of the outlawed Albanian National Army, who escaped in August from Dubrava prison in western Kosovo, where he had been serving a 15-year sentence for armed violence.
After yesterday's initial assault, armed Albanian gang members fled into surrounding fields and woods, where fighting continued. Witnesses in Brodec said at least four houses were on fire late yesterday.
Macedonian officials said between seven and ten Albanians had been killed, with no casualties on the Macedonian side.
NATO's peacekeeping force in Kosovo, K-FOR, said a Macedonian helicopter had crashed during the operation, but Macedonian officials denied this.
The border area of Kosovo and Macedonia has been tense since the summer, after a series of shootings involving Albanian criminal gangs, who are reported to have taken refuge in villages in the area. K-FOR said patrols had been stepped up on its side of the border in an attempt to prevent violence spilling over into Kosovo, which goes to the polls next weekend in the run-up to a possible declaration of independence in early December.