EIGHT police officers and 14 alleged members of an armed group have been killed in fighting in a northern Macedonian town, amid increased concern about the political stability in the Balkan nation that has a history of ethnic hostility.
Interior ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said 37 other police officers had been wounded in the clashes that started on Saturday.
He said the police operation was now over and “one of the most dangerous terrorists groups in the Balkans has been neutralised”.
According to Mr Kotevski, police found the bodies of 14 individuals believed to be members of the armed group. Some of the dead were wearing uniforms with insignia of the disbanded Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK. No identification documents were found on the deceased.
The UCK, an ethnic Albanian rebel group, fought Serb government forces for Kosovo independence in 1998-99 and international peacekeepers still have a presence in Kosovo.
Mr Kotevski named five leaders of the 44-member group, all citizens of Kosovo, as founders of paramilitary structures.
He said the group had entered Macedonia at the start of May with the aim of launching attacks on state institutions. Members were sheltered in the Diva Naselba neighbourhood of Kumanovo and police found a huge arsenal of weapons at that location, he said.
Police have filed terrorism-related charges against more than 30 members of the group that have surrendered. They are expected to be brought before an investigative judge, who will decide on possible detention.
Mr Kotevski was not able to confirm any civilian casualties in the clashes.
The fighting comes as Macedonia is grappling with its deepest political crisis since its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
The government and the opposition have 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 25 miles north-east 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.
That insurgency, in which about 80 people were killed, ended after six months with a western-brokered peace deal that granted more rights to ethnic Albanians, who make up about a quarter of the country’s population of two million.
About two weeks ago, authorities said a group of about 40 people wearing UCK uniforms had attacked a police watchtower in Gosince, on Macedonia’s northern border with Kosovo, and briefly captured four Macedonian police officers.
Authorities described that incident as “very serious” and said Macedonia had been the “target of a terrorist attack”.
Yesterday, the Macedonian government declared two days of mourning for those killed in the clashes and president Gjorge Ivanov called for a National Security Council meeting.
National flags were flying at half-mast and sports events and political gatherings have been cancelled.
EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn expressed “deep concern” at the situation unfolding in the Kumanovo region.
“I urge all actors for utmost restraint. Any further escalation must be avoided, not the least in the interest of the overall stability in the country,” he said.