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News 09 May 15

Five Police Killed in Gunbattle in Macedonia

Interior Minister says five police killed and many others injured in battles with gunmen in the northern town of Kumanovo.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Police in Kumanovo | Photo by AP / Radovan Vujovic

Macedonia authorities said five policemen were killed and more than 30 injured on Saturday in clashes with gunmen in the northern town of Kumanovo.

Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska said the police action had been necessary as the armed group were planning attacks on strategic targets.

"The operation is still ongoing until the last terrorist has been neutralised. The fact that this has lasted for 16 hours shows how dangerous they are," Jankulovska said, adding that most of the group had surrendered.

The battled with the unidentified, uniformed gunmen started early on Saturday morning in Kumanovo.

Earlier, police spokesperson Ivo Kotevski said an operation had been launched in the suburb of Divo Naselje to "uncover and break up an armed terrorist group" that had entered Kumanovo from "a neighboring country" with the aim of "attacking state institutions".

Kotevski said police encountered heavy resistance from the "well trained" group that was using "automatic weapons, bombs and snipers". Television images showed smoke rising from houses in the area and the sound of gunfire.

The shootout came amid heightened political tensions between the government and opposition in Macedonia, with some critics accusing the authorities of plotting acts of violence to distract attention from the ongoing crisis.

The shooting started at around 4.30am local time and continued throughout the day.

Police armoured vehicles have been deployed to the area and media reported smoke coming out of at least one house. Media also reported a heavy police presence on the Skopje-Kumanovo highway.

Lumi Beqiri, a civil activist from Kumanovo, said that from his fifth-floor balcony he was able to see clouds of thick smoke rising from a building housing two elementary schools, one ethnic Albanian and the other Macedonian.

Beqiri told BIRN that people from the area who had been caught up in the fighting had fled on foot towards the town centre.

"Shots and louder detonations are being heard sporadically. The fighting at moments subsides and then it intensifies again," he said.

Although he was not actually in the neighbourhood where the fighting was taking place, he could hear gunshots being fired even in his vicinity.

Police in Kumanovo | Photo by AP / Radovan Vujovic

The ethnically mixed town, some 25 kilometres northeast of the capital Skopje, was near the frontline during the armed conflict in Macedonia in 2001 between ethnic Albanian insurgents and the security forces. About 38 per cent of the 100,000 residents are ethnic Albanian.

The Mayor of Kumanovo, Zoran Damjanovski, told a press conference that the violence represented “a dangerous scenario which has been condemned by all communities in the municipality.”

Both Albanians and Macedonians in the town wanted to coexist in peace, he added.

Macedonia's ruling VMRO DPMNE party appealed for calm, saying that the destabilisation of the country did not suit anyone and would be extremely damaging all concerned.

Meanwhile, the US embassy and the EU delegation in Macedonia said they were following the situation and speaking to political leaders on both sides.

"We hope that an escalation of tensions can be avoided," the EU delegation said in a statement.

"Today's bloody clashes in Kumanovo, with human casualties, show the political crisis in Macedonia reached a critical point [with consequences] for the future of the country," the European Parliament rapporteur for Macedonia, Ivo Vajgl, said.

The Slovenian MEP is part of a European team of mediators between the Macedonian government and the opposition aiming to find a solution to the country's prolonged political crisis.

Reactions came from neighboring Albania and Kosovo as well. Albanian Foreign Ministry said that "the escalation of the situation must come to an end, for it does not serve the democratic stability and prosperity of Macedonia."

Kosovo's Foreign Ministry said it "condemns the violation of order and security by any individual or group with destabilizing aims in Macedonia."

Government accused of ‘staging’ violence

The shootout comes amid a political crisis in Macedonia revolving around opposition claims that Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has orchestrated the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people.

Amid daily anti-government protests and mounting pressure upon Gruevski to resign, some observers accused the authorities of trying to distract the public from the crisis by fabricating ethnic unrest.

The leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, said he suspected the government was behind Saturday’s violence in an attempt to deflect attention from the crisis.

"People recognize who has an interest in this kind of scenario,” Zaev said.

Injured are being rushed in the Skopje clinical centre | Photo by: mia

Zaev appealed for all ongoing anti-government protests to temporarily end, but there were calls on social networks for another protest to be held on Saturday.

Political analyst and former Macedonian MP Mersel Biljali also suggested that the Kumanovo violence was being staged by the authorities.

"I urge citizens - Macedonians, Albanians and all the rest - not to succumb to the provocation of this staged conflict with its tragic consequences, whose goal is to save a criminal government,” Biljali wrote on Facebook.

“We mustn’t let organised criminals trick us. We should confront them together,” he said.

CIVIL-Centre for Freedom, an NGO, said: "The timing of the police action and its intensity... raise many questions. First of all in the context of the deep political crisis, the protests of Macedonians across the country against the police brutality and the content of the published tapes, as well as ahead of the announced big protest meeting on May 17 aimed at demanding the government's resignation."

CIVIL urged Prime Minister Gruevski and his albanian coalition partner, Ali Ahmeti, of the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, to break their silence about events.

The DUI on Saturday appealed for calm, insisting that people should "not succumb to provocations" that were against the interests of the country and Albanians in general.

Kumanovo is located next to the rural municipality of Lipkovo, where, on April 21, the authorities claimed an unidentified armed group from nearby Kosovo had briefly stormed a border police outpost and captured, then released, four policemen.

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