Macedonia charges 30 alleged ethnic Albanian militants over gun battle
Habibe Biyali stands inside a room in her house heavily damaged by fighting in Kumanovo, Macedonia, Monday, May 11, 2015. (AP / Marko Drobnjakovic)
Nebi Qena and Konstantin Testorides, The Associated Press
Published Monday, May 11, 2015 12:21PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, May 11, 2015 5:16PM EDT
KUMANOVO, Macedonia -- Macedonian authorities on Monday jailed 30 people captured in a weekend gun battle in a northern town that left 22 police and suspected ethnic Albanian militants dead, at a time of heightened political tension in the small Balkan country
The suspects face terrorism-related charges. They are accused of participating in the fighting that killed eight police and also injured 37 people in the northern town of Kumanovo that has a mixed population of Macedonians and minority ethnic Albanians.
Most of those arrested came from neighbouring ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo, where officials called for a "credible and transparent investigation into the killings."
A court in Macedonia's capital, Skopje, identified the suspects Monday as 18 Kosovo residents, 11 Macedonians -- two of whom were living in Kosovo -- and one Albanian. All 30 were ordered detained for 30 days, the maximum period allowed under Macedonian law, which can then be renewed until the suspects go to trial.
The weekend fighting is the worst since 2001, when an ethnic Albanian insurgency nearly developed into all-out civil war in the small country of 2.1 million, a quarter of whom are ethnic Albanians. No group has claimed any connection with the incident, which Macedonian authorities have blamed on ethnic Albanian paramilitary groups that fought Serbian and Macedonian forces in the area in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga and Prime Minister Isa Mustafa jointly condemned the involvement of their citizens in the incident, calling it an attempt to "destabilize Kosovo and the neighbouring countries."
The Albanian government issued a statement calling for the protection of the ethnic Albanian population in Kumanovo.
Flags flew at half-staff while sports events and political gatherings were cancelled as the country observed a second day of national mourning.
International officials expressed concern. A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Monday for a full investigation "in an objective and transparent manner."
"At this sensitive time, the secretary-general calls on all actors to exercise maximum restraint and to refrain from any rhetoric and/or actions that may escalate tensions further," Stephane Dujarric said.
European Union enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn called for a thorough investigation and said the event "cannot and should not distract from the very serious internal political situation" in Macedonia.
The fighting came as Macedonia faces its deepest political crisis since independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, amid opposition claims that the conservative government tapped the phones of 20,000 people, including police, judges, religious leaders, journalists and foreign diplomats. The government denies that, blaming the wiretaps on unspecified foreign spies.
In a strongly worded statement, the ambassadors of the United States, European Union, and other European countries said the government's reluctance to address the allegations showed a lack of commitment to democratic principles -- and "will undermine Macedonia's progress towards EU and NATO membership."
Macedonian President George Ivanov met the ambassadors earlier Monday, his office said.
Kumanovo is 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Skopje, near the borders with Kosovo and Serbia. The region was the centre of hostilities during the ethnic conflict in 2001, which ended with a Western-brokered peace deal that granted more rights to ethnic Albanians
Police said the militants used assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades in the weekend house-to-house fighting in the densely built-up ethnic Albanian neighbourhood of Diva Naselba. Local media said at least 10 houses were destroyed, while several more were damaged by bullets.
Azem Brahimi, a 70-year-old local retired man, said he went out for morning prayers before the fighting started on Saturday only to find he could not return to the area that was besieged by police with his wife and son's family remaining inside.
Brahimi said his family was temporarily held as suspected terrorists but later released. He returned to his house only after the hostilities ended and found it in ruins.
"When I saw it destroyed the way it has been the only thing that kept me going is when I saw that my children are alive," Brahimi said.
Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski told reporters that over 40 militants had planned to attack state institutions, sport events and shopping malls. He said they had combat experience both in the region and in the Middle East, but did not elaborate on the latter.
The men allegedly entered Macedonia illegally at the beginning of May and hid out in Diva Naselba, where police say they found a huge arsenal of weapons. Some of the dead gunmen wore uniforms with the insignia of the disbanded ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group that fought Serb government forces in 1998-99 for the independence of Kosovo.
Testorides contributed from Skopje.