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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 21:28 GMT
Macedonia's 'mujahideen' - immigrants or terrorists?
Macedonian Policeman on a tank
Macedonian police increase patrols along the boarder
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By Nicholas Wood
BBC reporter in Macedonia

When Macedonian police shot dead seven men earlier this month it was claimed a new front had opened up in the war on terrorism.

The men, supposedly of Pakistani origin, were killed in a gun battle just to the north of the capital Skopje, according the Macedonian Interior Ministry.

Their mission, said the Interior Minister Ljube Boskovsi, was to target the US, British and German embassies in the country.

"They were aiming at terrorist acts against the most noteworthy embassies in this country, as well as towards people at the top of the government", said Mr Boskovski.

"We knew that there was a large terrorist group in town. And that's why we increased the patrols on the terrain".

Illegal immigrants

Four policemen in a two-door jeep had come across the men on patrol. A shoot-out followed, in which all the men were killed.

"It is a coincidence that we don't have any victims on our side", said Mr Boskovski.

At around ten to four in the morning there was shooting. I can't say there was fighting going on because it only lasted a couple of minutes.

Bekim Zekeri, local resident

Factory-clean weapons and a bag of neatly pressed uniforms bearing the initials of the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, were put on display as proof of the men's terrorist connections.

The week that followed saw a flurry of interest in the United States as one newspaper reported, "a murky front in the war against terrorism" had opened up.

But since then questions have emerged about the Ministry of Interior's account of the event.

Senior US diplomats have told the BBC they no longer think the men had any terrorist connection and a senior migration expert says he believes the men may have been illegal immigrants.

Shoot out

The alleged shoot-out took place near the village of Butel on a piece of open track, next to a concrete bridge.

Local resident Bekim Zekeri said he was woken by the shooting, but claimed there was little sign of a gun-battle.

"At around 0350 there was shooting from the place we call the third bridge. Two to three minutes later there were a series of shots five to six at a time," he said.

"I can't say there was fighting going on because it only lasted a couple of minutes."

Map showing boarder between Macedonia and Albania
The alleged shootout took place near the village of Butel, north of the capital Skopje

With no other witness available at the scene it has been difficult to corroborate the government's version of events.

The Interior Ministry later offered further evidence of the group's alleged terrorist links.

It said the men had been under surveillance for 10 days and were connected to two Bosnian and two Jordanians arrested in mid-February and then extradited to the US.

That news has come as a surprise both to the US and Bosnia. The state department says no handover has been made.

And Bosnia's ambassador to Macedonia, Fahradin Kulenovic, denies there was any proof linking the men to a terrorist organisation.

"I found out that they were not treated properly in prison and were beaten. They were students studying in Amman in Jordan," said Mr Kulenovic.

"They were stopping here to get visas for Bulgaria. You can get in contact with them in Amman now and hear their own story".

Western diplomats in Skopje say they have yet to be given any proof of a plot to target their embassies.

The United States special envoy to the Balkans, James Holmes, told BBC News Online that he does not believe that either the men killed by the police or the four arrested in February are linked to the war on terror.

"We have explored it with them and we have come to the conclusion that with respect to the two most recent incidents that these were not in our vernacular terrorist incidents".

Identity crises

Who then were the seven men killed by the police?

Sources inside the government have briefed journalists saying they believe that the group were illegal immigrants attempting to cross Macedonia on the well trodden path into Europe.

The Skopje head of International Organisation for Migration, the UN body with responsibility for migrants, agrees that the men may have been migrants who stumbled upon a police patrol.

Pasquale Lupoli points to statistics that show an increasing number of illegal immigrants of Asian and Arab origin being arrested in Macedonia, in the last six months of last year.

Some people in the Macedonian Government are trying to portray themselves as victims of terrorism

Agim Fetahu, Albanian writer

"This incident took place where there have been increasing patrols along the border due to the conflict (between ethnic Albanian and the security forces)," said Mr Lupoli

"There has been a 30% increase in the number of illegal immigrants being arrested, including people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Sri Lanka".

With no further evidence available from the ministry of the interior, the exact identity of the men remains unclear.

However, their involvement in terrorism seems to be unfounded. This had led some local analysts to draw some worrying conclusions about the ministry's intentions.

Agim Fetahu, an Albanian writer for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, believes this latest story is a crude attempt by the Ministry of the Interior to pursue former members of the National Liberation Army or NLA, just as the country's long drawn out peace process is near to completion.

The group was behind seven months of fighting with security forces last year.

Macedonian policeman on top of vehicle.
The fated party stumbled across a Macedonian police patrol

"Some people in the Macedonian Government are trying to portray themselves as victims of terrorism, just like the United States. Basically giving them a freehand to do whatever they see fit, in this case actions against the NLA or other Albanian groupings".

The identity of the seven dead 'mujahideen' may never be known.

It seems clear though that the government claims about a terrorist plot are unfounded, leaving many to question the motives behind the Ministry of the Interior's story.

Key stories



See also:

17 Mar 02 | Europe
Macedonia - one year on
12 Mar 02 | Europe
Donors double Macedonia aid
12 Mar 02 | Europe
Aid hopes for Macedonia
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