An armed group attacked police with automatic guns, snipers and bombs in a town in northern Macedonia on Saturday amid a political crisis that has raised concern about the stability in the Balkan nation, officials said.
KUMANOVO, Macedonia (AP) — Three police officers were killed and at least 20 others were injured in an exchange of gunfire in the town Kumanovo, the TV station Telma reported. The station said it had confirmed the deaths with family members of the deceased.
Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski earlier said police had clashed with a “well-trained terrorist group” which had entered Macedonia from an unspecified neighbouring country with a plan to “perform attacks on state institutions.”
He refused to give details about possible casualties.
Saturday’s clashes come as Macedonia is grappling with its deepest political crisis since its independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991. The government and the opposition have both accused each other of planning to destabilise the country to take or preserve power, and some analysts fear leaders on both sides are ready to provoke ethnic clashes as leverage.
Kumanovo is an ethnically mixed town located about 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of the capital Skopje, near the border with Kosovo and Serbia. The region was the centre of hostilities between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces during the ethnic conflict in 2001.
Ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of Macedonia’s 2 million people, took up arms in 2001 demanding more rights. The conflict ended after six months with a western brokered peace deal that granted more rights to the minority group.
Saso Ordanovski, a political analyst, suggested in a debate on local TV station 24 Vesti Saturday that the members of the armed group in Kumanovo were mercenaries.
“Somebody have paid them to change the subject on what is going on at the moment in the country,” Ordanovski said.
The EU delegation in Macedonia appealed for calm and said in a statement it is waiting “for facts to be established by the relevant authorities.”
The U.S Embassy in Skopje issued a statement saying it “deeply regret(s) the loss of life.” — “We are following the situation and are in close contact with the authorities and political leaders. We urge citizens to remain calm and allow the facts to be established,” the embassy said in a statement.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov urgently ended his visit to Russia and traveled back home. The president’s office said he will call for a National Security Council meeting in relation to the latest security developments.
Serbia, Macedonia’s northern neighbour, reacted by sending reinforcements of special police to the border region, apparently fearing a possible spillover of tensions.
Kotevski, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the armed group was “sheltered in the houses of supporters” in the Kumanovo neighbourhood Diva Naselba, but didn’t give any more details about the organisation.
Police launched a search operation in that area early Saturday morning and Kotevski said “terrorists” attacked special police forces with automatic guns, snipers and bombs.
“This is a risky operation because it is an area with narrow streets and police need to search house to house very carefully”, Kotevski said.
Local TV stations aired video footage showing black smoke rising from houses in the western Kumanovo suburb and many civilians fleeing the area.
On Friday, thousands of opposition supporters had joined nationwide protests against alleged police brutality in Macedonia. The protests started after opposition leader Zoran Zaev – citing illegally recorded conversations – accused the government of trying to cover up the 2011 police killing of a 22-year-old man.
The recordings are part of a series of wiretaps Zaev has been releasing that he says reveals corruption at the highest level of government in this country of 2 million people, including mismanagement of funds and criminal prosecutions of opponents.
Zaev claims Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was behind the alleged illegal wiretapping and that he received the material from a source. Gruevski denies wrongdoing, claiming the recordings were fabricated with the help of foreign spies. He has accused Zaev of plotting a coup. Zaev on Saturday appealed for calm, but had earlier called for a large anti-government protest on May 17.
The junior coalition partner in the conservative government, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integrations, or DUI, has also expressed concern and appealed for calm. DUI urged people not to respond to provocations.