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Macedonia: 'Mujahedin' Killings Under Scrutiny

Western diplomats unconvinced by government version of fatal shooting of suspected Islamic militants.
By Ana Petruseva

Almost a week after seven "Muslim terrorists" were killed in a shoot-out with police in Skopje, confusion still reigns over who the slain men were, with international observers casting doubt on the official version of events.

Minister of Interior Ljube Boskovski said the men were killed because they opened fire after being ordered to surrender during a police raid. Police have identified them only as mujahedin fighters from Muslim states, who were planning to attack government officials and foreign embassies.

Boskovski says the police knew about the group's presence for ten days before the shoot-out, yet neither NATO, the OSCE, the UK, the US nor German embassies received a warning of any threat from the Macedonian authorities, say diplomats.

Police have rejected an OSCE offer to bring in a forensic expert from Kosovo to examine the bodies, and no one has been allowed to see a van in which officers claim to have found assault rifles, eight hand grenades, eight rocket launchers.

Police also claimed they found a number of uniforms belonging to the former ethnic Albanian rebel group, the National Liberation Army, NLA, during the raid. The NLA was engaged in an armed conflict against Macedonian forces last year and hardliners in the government have long insisted the group receives help from Islamic militants. Boskovski was quick to claim that the uniforms have now proved such a link.

Macedonia's Albanian leaders immediately denied any involvement with the slain men, in particular, and Islamic militants, in general. "Albanians were struggling for freedom and human rights," said former NLA general Gzim Ostremi, stressing that last year's conflict should not be seen as a religious war.

International observers also cast doubt on the story. "The whole incident is too fishy," one source told IWPR. "Unless Boskovski can fill in some holes, it will begin to look as if the entire incident was staged - which would be very alarming."

Both Boskovski and the hawkish prime minister Ljupco Georgievski would lose credibility among the international community should the incident turn out to be a set-up aimed at disrupting a fragile peace in the country, he added.

Diplomats have seen four out of the seven bodies and confirmed the authorities' claim that the men were from outside the Balkans - they were clearly of Asian origin, according to sources. However, beyond that it has been difficult to verify the official version of events, because it keeps changing.

Initially, police said the incident started when the suspects attacked a police patrol travelling along a dirt road between two large vineyards north-west of Skopje. Later, interior ministry officials said the raid was planned ten days earlier, after police in the capital arrested four mujahedin, two from Jordan and two from Bosnia.

Important details have also changed. First, the police said the suspects had approached them in a van, then on Tuesday they changed their story, claiming that the men were walking through the vineyards when the shooting started.

"The number of unanswered questions around this incident are cause for concern," one Western diplomat told Reuters. "If this didn't happen the way they (the police) say it did, then it could have been an execution." Another diplomat told IWPR that he was worried by the varying accounts. "But since the only information we have comes from the ministry of interior, we may never find out what really happened," he said.

Since September 11, stories purporting to link ethnic Albanian guerrillas with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda group have flooded the Macedonian media. Western diplomats have so far dismissed these as nationalist propaganda. While analysts say last week's shooting is unlikely to affect the peace process as the dead men were foreigners, the incident should raise concern over the lengths some in the government might go to in order to "prove" their thesis.

Ana Petruseva is journalist with Skopje magazine Forum.

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