Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bold police raid left six dead at a delicate time

Hundreds attended the funeral of the two Albanians killed in a military-style police raid last week in the village of Brodec in western Macedonia in an incident which threatens to stir up ethnic tensions again. Mourners were cramped into a mosque and a street in the village to which access is made difficult by a narrow, cratered road.

The raid, in which helicopters swooped in, automatic gunfire rang out and altogether six men were killed and 13 arrested, enraged the Macedonian Albanians in Brodec.

The incident now threatens to renew and ignite ethnic tensions in the area that teetered on the verge of a civil war when Albanians launched an insurgency in 2001.

Police said they had targeted a gang of fugitives from a prison in Kosovo, across the nearby border in an area largely disregarded by the local Albanian population, during the raid.

But many of Brodec's 1,300 still dazed and disbelieving inhabitants who say politics is of little interest to them, mutter that the deadly raid was politically motivated.

In their eyes, the two young local men they had come to bury and as those arrested during the raid are innocent.

"It was six in the morning, we were still in our beds when suddenly four helicopters appeared and started firing on the houses," Semsedin Selimi recalled.

While locals say that the helicopters sprayed walls, houses, the mosque and cars with bullets, Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska described the raid as a success without "major" collateral damage.

The six men were killed after they opened fire on police, officials say, backing the claim with forensic findings, along with that of a big cache of weapons that was seized in the Brodec.

The cache of automatic weapons, explosives, mines, grenades and rocket-propelled grenade launchers was intended for for attacks on cities and institutions, according to police.

Villagers, however, say they know nothing about the weapons.

"We are simple farmers loyal to the state," said Xheleb Dauti, who was still awaiting news of two sons and two grandsons who were among those arrested.

A third of Macedonian territory, along the northern and western borders with Kosovo and Albania, is dominated by ethnic Albanians, with Tetovo, the country's second-largest city, as the economic hub.

During the 2001 conflict, the entire region, dotted by villages along the porous borders and the population hostile to Skopje authorities, was virtually inaccessible for Macedonian police.

Even later, with the peace and reform deal fully in place, there were incidents of reportedly well-armed crime bosses and warlords driving police out of villages.

The showdown over the status of Kosovo, where the Albanian majority wants to obtain independence from Serbia, has again sent ripples of tension throughout the region.

The Albanians in Macedonia and southern Serbia keep their eyes riveted on Kosovo amid negotiations in a volatile atmosphere.

Ali Ahmeti, the mayor of Tetovo, who heads the Albanian opposition Democratic Union for Integration party and led the bloody insurgency in 2001, has criticized the raid.

In his words, the incident was a warning intended to "frighten and shut up" the Albanian population in Macedonia.

In 2001, the West brokered a peace deal which ended fighting through a broad constitution reform, giving Albanians and other minorities more rights in the dominantly Slavic Macedonia.

As a result, Macedonia became a regional example of conflict resolution for the United States, the European Union and the NATO alliance.

In return, Macedonia was given he status of prospective EU member state in 2005 with hopes of being invited to join NATO in 2008.

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