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Saturday, 2 March, 2002, 17:02 GMT
'Foreign militants' killed in Macedonia
Soldier on guard at the US Embassy in Skopje on Saturday
The government says foreign embassies are at risk
Macedonian police are reported to have shot dead seven suspected foreign militants in a shoot-out in the suburbs of the capital, Skopje.

Interior Ministry officials said they were killed after opening fire on a police patrol with machine guns in the early hours of Saturday - no police officers were hurt.

Weapons displayed by police after the shooting
The police say they came under fire first
Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski said the dead men were "probably Pakistanis" and had been planning attacks on vital installations and embassies.

"That terrorist group was in the area with the aim of attacking vital installations, Macedonian officials and the embassies of Germany, Great Britain and the US in Skopje," said Mr Boskovski.

Police officials said they had found AK-47 rifles, grenade launchers and grenades in or near the van used by the rebels.

Forensic experts described the dead as "dark-skinned" and police video footage show to the press showed what appeared to be identity cards with the names Omer Farooq and Bilal Hussain.

Western leaders have in the past been sceptical about reports of foreign Islamic militants operating in Macedonia.

'Albanian link'

Police also said they had found uniforms of the now-disbanded ethnic Albanian rebel group, the National Liberation Army (NLA).

If that the group was involved, it would be the biggest breach of the country's Western-brokered peace since it was signed last August, the BBC's Paul Anderson reports.

The rebels, from Macedonia's mainly Muslim ethnic Albanian community, fought a military campaign against government troops last year in pursuit of greater rights.

Western officials shoring up the peace in the country and leaders of the NLA have dismissed suggestions that fighting could erupt again this spring.

Mr Boskovski said he did not expect a major new offensive but was "ready to face all challenges".

There has been no reaction from the country's ethnic Albanian leaders, but one commentator described the situation as "grave".

He said it came at a time of steady progress in the implementation of the peace deal which ended the seven-month Albanian uprising last year.

Western officials said that some precautionary security measures had been taken at embassies in Skopje.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Anderson
"A big question mark hangs over the identity of the killed and captured men"

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07 Feb 02 | Europe
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