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Macedonia: Kidnappings Unnerve Albanian Leaders

Ethnic Albanian party claims bitter political rivals behind series of abductions in west of the country.
By Irfan Agushi

Macedonia is battling a kidnapping crime wave, belying government initiatives to restore law and order and highlighting that criminal groups remain active in the areas devastated by ethnic conflict in 2001.


Interior ministry officials have reported more than 10 cases of kidnapping in the last two months alone, though these recent victims were all released once their captors had received the money they demanded.


Both victims and the kidnappers come from the ethnic Albanian community, which makes up at least a quarter of the republic's population.


International officials are voicing concern. "The abduction of Albanians, presumably by Albanian criminal groups, is a new challenge," said Harald Schenker, of the OSCE.


"While some cases were clearly spontaneous and the work of amateurs, others have involved organised criminal structures, and present problems for the local police."


After the internationally-brokered resolution of the conflict between Albanian insurgents and Macedonia's armed forces in 2001, police returned to the northwestern parts of the country that were formerly under rebel control.


Mixed ethnic police patrols, aimed at restoring trust and boosting reconciliation, were set up in the former crisis areas.


It is these areas that have seen most of the recent kidnapping incidents. The authorities have refused to name many of those affected for security reasons.


The series of high-profile abductions started last December, when the son of a well-known local businessman was seized in the centre of Skopje. The daily paper Vest said the kidnappers demanded a ransom of one million euro - and the family had no choice but to pay up.


The title said the exchange occurred at the Blace border crossing and that the abductors, who were armed an in disguises, took the money, released their victim and fled into Kosovo.


A more gruesome fate awaited Fatmir Lika, abducted on December 31 near Tetovo. Witnesses said three armed men seized him and threatened to kill him if he did not obey their orders.


That night an unknown person informed the police by telephone that Lika had been murdered and that his body was lying near the village of Zelino, in the northwestern part of the Tetovo municipality.


Police disclosed that Lika had been tortured before he was shot with seven bullets. They later traced the suspect, from the village of Larce, but the motive behind the kidnapping and murder remains unclear.


The latest reported case on May 5 involved four men wearing disguises and carrying automatic weapons who opened fire on a 31-year-old man from the village of Zelino, near Tetovo.


According to the interior ministry, the victim was in his car with his wife at the time of the incident. He was wounded in the leg. The two were forced into another car, which drove off in an unknown direction. Hours later, after they had paid money to their kidnappers, they were released.


The largest Albanian party outside the government, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, insists that their rivals in the government, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, are behind the abductions, in particular those of the children of leading Albanian figures.


Kujtesa Hasani, 16, from the village of Dolgozda, in the Struga region, was kidnapped on April 21.The kidnappers, some believe, may have been trying to get at her father, Mendi Hasani, DPA mayor of Dolgozda. She was released less than an hour after being seized.


Hasani's father insisted the abduction was politically motivated. "Criminal elements in the Democratic Union for Integration were involved," he alleged.


On April 24, there was failed attempt to kidnap the son of Bedredin Ibrahimi, a member of the DPA presidency and a former labour minister. Ibrahimi said the case had political overtones. "People who cannot compete politically with DPA act in this manner," he said.


The DUI denies involvement in any of the abduction cases. "We condemn these acts just as we condemn all organised crime in the country," said Ermira Mehmeti, a DUI spokeswoman.


"The DUI is very concerned about the whole phenomenon and we support taking action to eliminate these types of crime and establish order."


The government has declined to involve itself in the war of words between the Albanian parties. It has branded the abductions as the work of gangsters. "The background of these kidnappings is entirely criminal," Voislav Zafirovski, a police spokesman, told IWPR. He said in most cases the family of the kidnapped victim was in debt, owed money, or had some unsettled score.


Observers say the kidnappings illustrate the degree to which the authorities have failed to restore law and order since the ethnic conflict ended two years ago.


"Such incidents underline the necessity of continued support for the government's efforts to combat organised crime," said Schenker. "This issue represents a major challenge to police work."


However, he was careful to add that an upsurge of organised crime in post-conflict societies, such as Macedonia, was "not unusual", adding that "it is certainly not a Macedonian phenomenon".


Irfan Agushi is a journalist with daily Fakti