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Macedonia Endures Further Violence Predawn Police Raid On Capital Results In Five Rebel Deaths

By Alissa J. Rubin

Serious violence struck Macedonia’s capital Tuesday when police conducted a predawn raid that resulted in the deaths of five members of the National Liberation Army, the rebel group that says it is fighting for greater rights for ethnic Albanians.

There were no police injuries reported in the incident, the first of its kind in Skopje since the current conflict erupted in February.

The raid came as leaders from the country’s main political parties -- two ethnic Macedonian and two ethnic Albanian -- had reached the final stages of negotiations for a deal to end the fighting, which has brought the country to the verge of civil war. The talks are expected to continue for at least another day in the resort town of Ohrid.

According to police, the five men who were killed in the raid were commanders of guerrilla units and were plotting a “terrorist action” in the capital.

While the rebels control a number of small villages and towns in northern and western Macedonia, Tuesday marked the first time it became clear that they have infiltrated Skopje.

Macedonia has about 2 million people, and ethnic Albanians make up its largest minority, with at least 25 percent of the population.

“This has been one of the most successful actions of the Interior Ministry so far in discovering terrorist and extremist groups,” said Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski.

In Macedonia, the police, as well as special forces units, are under the authority of the Interior Ministry, which is part of the central government.

When asked, Boskovski refused to rule out the possibility of future activities by the rebels in Skopje.

Boskovski is considered a hard-liner who would prefer to end the fighting by using military tactics against the guerrillas rather than relying on a peace deal.

But Albanians contended that Boskovski set up the operation in order to derail the peace process by creating the appearance of an ethnic threat when in fact they are eager for a peaceful resolution. They also said the raid was designed to precipitate a backlash from their side and thus further slow down peace efforts.

“This is strong provocation (done) in order to make a scene of a major inter-ethnic conflict,” said Demdmush Bajrami, an ethnic Albanian member of parliament from Skopje.

Representatives of the National Liberation Army were quoted on Albanian television denouncing the police action as a violent attack on unarmed men and denying that there were any plans for armed activity in Skopje.

On the Macedonian side, however, the raid provided evidence that the rebels have far from peaceful intentions.