At around 5am on 7 November, an ethnically-mixed elite police force in Macedonia raided the remote, Albanian-populated village of Brodec. Their target: a group of vigilantes, led by a known Wahhabi extremist and a paramilitary partner who had been mysteriously sprung from jail in Kosovo in August. It would be the single biggest success to date for beleaguered Macedonia, chronically beset by troublemaking from Kosovo-based insurgents working in alliance with local radicals.
Unlike various similar operations carried out by the previous two Macedonian governments since 2001, innocent bystanders were not caught in the crossfire and there was no large-scale property destruction. The smooth handling of the operation won the interior ministry praise from foreign officials such as Victoria Nuland, US ambassador to NATO, who stated, “we were informed on the operation. We were especially impressed by the fact that multi-ethnic police forces carried out the tasks.”
Indeed, the operation – grandiosely dubbed ‘Mountain Storm,’ after the Sar Planina Mountain range where the villages of Brodec, Vejce and Vesela are located – was very successful, with six fugitives, including the Wahhabi ringleader, Ramadan Shiti, being killed, and 13 other terrorists captured. In the dramatic gun battle that ensued, only one policeman was injured. However, one of the most wanted men – Lirim Jakupi, self-proclaimed ‘Commander Nazi’ – escaped. Criminal charges on grounds of terrorism have been submitted against all 17 members of the group, as well as the four remaining fugitives, thought to be led by Jakupi.
Although the interior ministry at first stated officially that the killed and captured men were mere ‘criminals,’ the astonishingly large variety of weapons seized – enough for waging a small war – in houses and fields near Brodec belied that assertion. So did the fact that some, such as leader Shiti, have previously been linked with the Saudi-backed Wahhabi Muslim sect’s attempts to take control of the Islamic communities in Macedonia and Kosovo. Indeed, during the operation, Ramadan Shiti reportedly died as a suicide bomber, igniting the grenade he was carrying when surrounded by police.
Ready for War
Macedonia’s Minister of Interior, Gordana Jankuloska, stated for media on 9 November that the Brodec haul was “the largest amount of [heavy] weaponry… seized thus far” in Macedonia. The arsenal included everything from sniper rifles, assault rifles, dynamite, hand grenades, mortars and thousands of bullets to artillery pieces, RPG launchers and laser-guided anti-aircraft missiles. The cache was deemed “sufficient to equip a battalion of 650 soldiers.” Indeed, black nationalist paramilitary uniforms were also found (the gang had been allegedly involved in conducting nighttime uniformed roadblocks in recent weeks in the area). The impressive haul, which also included nationalist booklets and weaponry manuals, was laid out for journalists and military attaches to inspect at police barracks in the western Skopje suburb of Gjorce Petrov on 9 November.
Other clear indications of the long-term war plans of the militant group became apparent when television crews showed the professional-standard bunkers dug into the mountainside above the village, stocked with sleeping bags, large bags of onions and potatoes, and other rations. The structures even included improvised shower cabins and beds. Both cars and horses had been used to bring in supplies from the nearby mountain border with Kosovo, as well as from Tetovo and other places. According to retired Army Col. Blagoja Markovski, now with the Balkan Security Forum, “the [terrorists] came in this region two or three months ago… with a plan, and were preparing for military actions.”
The operation followed several weeks of tracking the fugitives, who were moving “throughout the tri-border area” between Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, aided by a large network of safe houses, stated one ranking military intelligence officer for Balkanalysis.com. However, the authorities also had their own network of local informers. “We contributed information from our side to the police, as did the Serbian government and KFOR [in Kosovo].” Finally, the special police unit, composed of officers of both Macedonian and Albanian ethnicities, pounced on Brodec in the early hours, sealing off the village and setting up checkpoints on access roads. The plans were finalized after the green light was given by US Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic and EU Special Representative Erwan Fouere, joked the officer- “our real ‘president’ and ‘prime minister.’”
According to published accounts quoting police participants, the militants began firing first, forcing the police to shoot back. The battle took place in and around several houses in the village, as well as the Brodec mosque, which was being used as an arsenal by the gang. When the shooters were killed, police were able to scour the adjoining territory, discovering more arms caches and the bunkers, set in strategic places on the mountainside, with commanding views of the village and Tetovo beneath. Individuals killed in the operation included Hisni Ameti, also known as ‘Commander Cevaj,’ and Imer Gavazi (42), both from Kosovo; Bekim Memeti (21) from Tetovo; Ferat Sahini (20) and Fidan Fejzulahu (24), both from Brodec; and Ramadan Shiti (24), from Kosovo.
Shiti had already escaped twice from prison, once in Macedonia and once in Kosovo, and was wanted as an accomplice in the murder of a Skopje taxi driver and for participating in a bomb attack on the Bit Pazar police station in Skopje in July 2005.
However, while Shiti may be dead, according to Macedonian intelligence sources surveyed by Balkanalysis.com, some of his major accomplices in those crimes are still at work in Kosovo, developing the growth of radical Islamist cells there, with support from Saudi and other Arab countries channeling funds via diaspora Albanian radicals in Milan, Italy as well as Austria and Bosnia.
The Macedonian government claimed that the August ‘escape’ from Dubrava Prison of Shiti, Jakupi and co. was not a matter of luck, but done purposefully by ‘certain structures’ eager to provoke unrest to influence the Kosovo status process around the scheduled conclusion of ‘final’ negotiations between Serbs and Albanians on 10 December. That said, the bold, professional and unexpected operation was a sign of how far the country has come since the 2001 war, when unnecessary collateral damage and widespread leaks precluded efficient operations.
The present raid was very impressive, thus, in that it involved a multi-ethnic police force, operating in hostile and remote territory, and in that it unfolded amidst total secrecy. The fact that innocent bystanders were not affected also speaks well for the interior ministry’s newfound professionalism; this outcome is crucial as critics such as the opposition DUI party of former NLA boss Ali Ahmeti cannot claim it to have been an attack on the Albanian people, and thus use it to provoke knock-on violence.
On 9 November, Macedonian Intelligence Agency Director Viktor Dimovski was quoted as stating that Macedonia “is not under any immediate threat” of attacks from abroad following Operation Mountain Storm. However, rumblings from Kosovo and from NLA war veterans indicate that new provocations may occur. A shadowy, Tetovo-based separatist organization, calling itself the Political-Military Council of the KLA, claimed that the Jakupi-Shiti group was linked to them, and swore it would defend Albanian “national honor” through violence.
The still unknown organization claims that it has created paramilitary groups allegedly “to protect the endangered Albanian people, and every inch of Albanian territory.” In a statement relayed by Serbia’s B92, the group vows that “there can be no stable political or military solution, peace or stability in the turbulent Balkans without respect and implementation of a decision taken at a conference in Bujan for self-determination (Kosovo, and unification with Albania), and for institution of a military oath for all three liberation armies – Kosovo, Eastern Kosovo (Preševo, Bujanovac, Medveđa), and Macedonia.”
For his part, the better known local radical Xhezair Shaqiri (“Commander Hoxha”) threatened to “square accounts” with the Interior Ministry, reported Sitel Television, stating “we will wait for the police wherever they come.” Unlike the obscure “Political-Military Council,” Commander Hoxha begged ignorance of the culprits in Brodec shootout.
There are signs, however, of a certain momentum building up as Macedonia shows it is serious about cleaning up the territory from would-be troublemakers, and that outsiders are beginning to respect this. Three days after the police operation, the Kosovo government extradited another Albanian, Zaim Halili, to Macedonia. Halili had been wanted for the murder of Fatmir Alili, the (also Albanian) police chief of Matejce village, north of Kumanovo. In the attack of 9 September, which also involved two other accomplices, two Macedonian policemen, Janche Kitanov and Sladjan Kostovski were injured.
To conclude, the government’s success in eliminating paramilitary threats on their own turf and before they have time to position heavy weaponry is a dramatic and unprecedented defeat for the Albanian irredentists who would like to sever the western third of Macedonia for themselves. There are a number of reasons for this. A significant one is that the Macedonian police are much better trained and equipped than they were six, or even three years ago. The second vital factor is that they received cooperation from locals; indeed, without tips from local Albanians, discovering the vigilantes and their stashed weapons would have been much more difficult. Interestingly, a local Albanian from Brodec interviewed by television journalists stated that had the police in 2001 done such a ‘neat’ operation in the beginning of the war, it could have been stopped before escalating out of control. This week’s operation shows that the Macedonian security forces have come a long way in that time.