Thursday, November 08, 2007

Macedonia battles gunmen in Albanian region; 6 dead

Macedonian police killed six members of what it called a criminal group on Wednesday during heavy clashes in hills above the mainly ethnic Albanian town of Tetovo, centre of a 2001 guerrilla insurgency.

Special police units backed by helicopters battled gunmen in the village of Brodec in the Shar mountain region after a dawn raid to round up a group led by an ethnic Albanian fugitive from a Kosovo prison.

The operation followed a warning from the Macedonian government last week of the possible "political exploitation" of criminal elements as Albanian tensions rise over neighbouring Kosovo's stalled bid for independence from Serbia.

"The interior ministry successfully completed operation 'Mountain Storm' to eliminate an extremist criminal group," Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska told a news conference.

Jankulovska said that according to preliminary information, four gunmen were killed. A senior police source told Reuters later that six were dead. Six people were arrested.

"We are sending a clear message to all criminal groups that they will end the same way," said Jankulovska.

A spokesman for the NATO peace force in Kosovo told a news conference a Macedonian helicopter had crashed during the fighting, but Jankulovska said the information was wrong.

The fighting, in which police sealed roads and conducted a house-to-house search, was the worst in the Tetovo region since 2001, when ethnic Albanian guerrillas battled government forces for greater rights for Macedonia's 25-percent Albanian minority.

NATO and the European Union brokered a deal to end the insurgency, but relations between Skopje authorities and the Albanian minority have soured since the main ex-guerrilla faction was left out of the ruling coalition last year.

The Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), led by former guerrilla commander Ali Ahmeti, said the government was trying to deflect attention from a decision by the European Union this week that said Skopje was still not ready for accession talks.

"Albanians are again collateral damage of the government's failings," said DUI spokeswoman Ermira Mehmeti.

Diplomats fear a standoff between the West and Russia over the demand of Kosovo's Albanian majority for independence from Serbia, eight years after NATO bombs drove out Serb forces, could spark unrest in Kosovo and Macedonia.

Faced with Serb and Russian opposition, Kosovo Albanians have threatened to declare independence once a deadline for negotiations to end expires on Dec. 10.

No comments: