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News 10 May 15

Macedonia Declares Mourning For Police Killed in Gunbattles

Macedonia declared days of mourning for police killed in battles with shadowy armed formation in Kumanovo - where calm was slowly restored on Sunday.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

Police in Kumanovo | Photo by: AP / Radovan Vujovic

Shooting ended on Sunday afternoon in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, where gun battles raged since early Saturday leaving eight dead policemen, 14 dead "terrorists" and over 37 wounded officers.

Police spokesman Ivo Kotevski told a press conference the operation was over and that police were still working to identify the 14 killed gunmen. He added that about 30 men from the group had surrendered.

He said there was no information of civilian casulties while 37 policemen were wounded in the shootout. The locals in Kumanovo that BIRN reporters interviewed had no information about civilian casualties or wounded.

Macedonian police released a video of captured gunmen in which some of the arrested men appear to be wearing uniforms with UCK insignia.

Prime Minister Gruevski: This is not Macedonian- Albanian Conflict

In a dramatic speech on Sunday Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski praised the police action as professionally conducted although being the most challenging for the police force.

Gruevski said that the armed gunmen had plans to destabilize the country by attacking state and civilian targets and that some "are participants in several conflicts, some in the Middle East, which points out to their big experience in guerilla fighting".

Paying homage to the killed policemen he said that "we lost eight people who together with their colleagues may have prevented murders of 8,000 people".

Gruevski said that the happenings should not be perceived as a conflict between Macedonians and Albanians but as one "between those who wish ill to the country and the people who protect the state and the constitution."

The Prime Minister used his address to sent a message to "some opposition politicians and so-called journalists" that "gathering political points on the back of the killed and wounded, sending threats serving for daily political points is utterly cowardly act" and added that "All those who wish to make ill to the country,  I tell them that they will end up like this terror group."

After a relatively silent night, more shots were heard about 7am Sunday as police swept the area for more alleged terrorists in and around the Divo Naselje district, which bore the brunt of the fighting on Saturday.

The government declared Sunday and Monday days of mourning for the dead police - all members of the anti-terrorist Tigers unit. The Skopje marathon that was due to take place Sunday was cancelled.

Heavy gunfire and explosions alarmed residents of the ethnically mixed town throughout Saturday. The intense fighting lasted for 16 hours until late at night, when the police said that most of the gunmen had either surrendered or been "neutralized".

By Sunday afternoon, the area appeared calm. About a hundred people from the neighbourhood could be seen standing around where the shootout took place near the police checkpoint, as police had cordoned off the area and did not allow anyone to enter.

Mostly ethnic Albanian men, they were waiting to see when they could get back to their houses. They said they did not spot anything unusual before the incident started.

"We all know each other, we would have seen if there were any terrorists," one man told BIRN. "Everything seemed normal until yesterday."  

Idriz Sinani said his family was now in Macedonia while he waited to hear whether he can go to see his home. He said he thought the attacks were "a staged incident" concocted by Prime Minster Gruevski and his ethnic Albanian coalition partner, Ali Ahmeti.

Others said that not everyone was evacuated from the densely populated area, and many people remained in their homes, including old people and pregnant women. For the moment, there is no electricity in the neighbourhood.  Local officials have also decided to close schools on Monday. They also set aside funds to help displaced persons with accommodation and with water, food and medical supplies.

Macedonian special unit members stop a vehicle as a fighting between police forces and members of an armed group resumes for a second day, in northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP

Police spokesperson Ivo Kotevski in a press conference on Sunday said that the police neutralized "one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Balkans, whose founders are former NLA members" that had more than 40 well armed and well trained members.

He said that they suspect the group had five more prominent members or leaders, all Kosovo citizens, Muhamed Krasniqi known as commander Malisheva, Mirsad Ndrecaj known as commander Nato, Sami Ukshini known as commander Sokoli, Beg Rizaj alias commander Begu and Deme Shehu alias Juniku.

Kotevski said that at least three of them have been among those who surrendered to the police after a day-long fighting. However, he said that Ndrecaj is not among the people who have surrendered but we are still identifying them.

Earlier, the Kosovo police said they had not noticed any suspicious groups recently.

"Until now there haven't been any suspicious elements/crossings of the border by individuals or criminal groups," Major Baki Kelani, the spokesperson for the Kosovo Police, said.

Meanwhile, some Albanian language media published a press statement from a shadowy group calling itself the National Liberation Army, claiming responsibility for the attacks. The same elusive group has claimed responsibility for several previous incidents in the country.

The statement, whose authenticity has not been confirmed, said the armed formation attacked the police in a "ongoing fight for freedom and national dignity" and that more actions would follow. It remains unclear what the group's motives and demands are.

Macedonia's President Gjorgje Ivanov called for a emergency session of the national security council with top officials but also opposition party leaders. However, Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the ethnic Albanian party in the government the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, did not attend the session. Instead Talat Xhaferi represented the DUI at the meeting.

After the meeting Ivanov said "We all stand united at this moment as the security of the state is most important". He appealed for calm and called the EU and NATO to find a solutions to unblock the country's Euro Atlantic path because "this situation is risky for the country ad the region.

European Enlargment Commissioner Johannes Hahn yesterday called for an end to violence and for dialogue.

"I am deeply concerned at the unfolding situation in the Kumanovo region and possible injuries and loss of life. I urge the authorities and all political and community leaders to cooperate, to restore calm and fully investigate the events in an objective and transparent manner within the law," he said.

"I urge the utmost restraint among all actors. Any further escalation must be avoided, not the least in the interest of the overall stability in the country," he added.

Kosovo and Albania also condemned the violence and called for restraint, while Serbia sent troops to secure the Macedonia-Serbia border near Kumanovo. Serbia’s Bureau for Coordination of the Security Services said on Sunday that “the security situation in Serbia is satisfactory” and there are no indications that the conflicts could spillover from Macedonia.

An ambulance rushes past a Macedonian special police unit member as a fighting between police forces and members of an armed group resumes for a second day, in northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP

“Police, along with the security services, fully controls the situation in the zone of in southern Serbia and towards the border to Macedonia,” Milorad Veljovic, Serbian police director said.

Serbian police have already sent additional number of police officers and members of special police units Gendarmerie to theMacedonian border on Saturday.

Veljovic also stated that about 450 people have fled from Macedonia to Serbia.

Ragmi Mustafa, the head of Serbian municipality Presevo near the Macedonian border, said the municipal office for emergency situations is prepared for a possible larger influx of people from Kumanovo.

“We are in contact with the Commissariat for Refugees, the Red Cross and the Ministry of Social Welfare. We have provided everything necessary for the reception of those people if they come - food, shelter, water and medicine,” Mustafa told BIRN.

He said that between 300 and 400 people from Kumanovo already arrived in Presevo on Saturday.

One of them, a 42-year old Albanian, came to Presevo with his wife and three children from Kumanovo’s neighbourhood caught in shootings.

“Shooting woke me up around 4.30am on Saturday morning. I thought that someone is celebrating, that there is wedding. Soon after, these first shoots were followed by a burst of gunfire.

“I went out into the yard, the detonation began to resonate, in yards nearby grenades have begun to fall. Some time later, police went through my street,” he told BIRN.

He stated that until Saturday morning life in Kumanovo was “normal.”

“Macedonians also live in my street and there were never any misunderstandings among us. They were equally frightened when the shooting started. I was afraid for the safety of my children,” he said.

The violence evoked memories of the armed conflict in Macedonia in 2001 between the security forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents.

The ethnically mixed Kumanovo region is located near the former front line of the battles that year.

The turmoil comes against a backdrop of a deep political crisis revolving around opposition claims that Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski ordered the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people.

Amid anti-government protests and mounting pressure on Gruevski to resign, some observers, including the opposition Social Democrat leader, Zoran Zaev, have voiced suspicion that the authorities may be attempting to distract the public from the crisis - and planned mass protests - by orchestrating ethnic unrest.

While the shootout raged on Saturday, human rights groups and NGOs accused the authorities of unjustly arresting nine student activists and putting eight of them in detention on the pretext of having participated in violent protests on May 5.

Zdravko Saveski, from the leftist Solidarity movement, said that the students had been "protesting peacefully" on May 5 and that the provocateurs behind the violence that took place in front of the government building that day were still at large. Riot police that evening hunted down protesters across central Skopje.

Saveski said the embattled government was "becoming aware that its propaganda does not work and is resorting to spreading fear and violence... We are seeing the installment of a fascist dictatorship in Macedonia. The protests will continue."

The Russian Foreign Ministry has meanwhile supported the nationalist government, accusing the opposition and "Western-inspired" NGOs of trying to destabilize the country.

"The eruption of anti-government activities in Macedonia over the last days is worrying," Moscow said.

"The choice of many opposition movements and NGOs, inspired by the West, that favor the logic of the street and the known scenario of a 'colored revolution', is full of dangerous consequences," it said, referring to the so-called Orange revolution in Ukraine.

The Russian message echoes the line of the Gruevski government, which accuses the Social Democrats of collaboration with unnamed "foreign secret services" to destabilize Macedonia.

The ruling party recently directly accused some NGOs and named activists in them of working for foreign interests.

Macedonia's current crisis began in February when the Social Democrats started releasing wiretapped tapes of senior officials' conversations.

It claims the tapes prove that the Gruevski government conducted the illegal surveillance of over 20,000 people over several years, including journalists, judges, prosecutors, mayors and even government ministers.

As the political crisis worsened, the Social Democrats announced mass demonstrations on May 17 aimed at ousting the government. The party has not said yet whether it will call off  the protest in light of the latest events in Kumanovo.

"Our attitude towards the government is well known and unchanged. However, we have another priority today, to prevent the process that obviously leads towards destabilization and my presence in the security council is only in this capacity" said opposition leader Zoran Zaev before heading to attend the Security Council in the presidential residence.

 Police transport a wounded man by a helicopter from Kumanovo, to a hospital, in Skopje. | Photo by Dragan Mitreski/AP
Macedonian special unit members search a vehicle as a fighting between police forces and members of an armed group resumes for a second day, in northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
Macedonian special units members take cover as the fighting resumes for second day near battle zone involving the police and an armed group, in northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
Macedonian special unit members carry a wounded colleague near the scene of an altercation involving the police, in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, on Saturday. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
 Monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) witness a police operation near the scene of an altercation involving the police, in northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, on Saturday. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
Macedonian soldiers travel to the scene of an altercatio. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
Police officers walk through a street near the scene of an altercation. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
 A woman cries as she hugs her relative after she was evacuated safely from the scene of an altercation involving the police, in northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, on Saturday. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
People are evacuated safely from the scene of an altercation. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
Smoke billows from a house in an area being investigated by the police, in northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, Saturday. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP

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