Communities across Macedonia fear a return to the conflict that gripped the country in 2001.
A terrorist group has entered the territory of Macedonia and is carrying out planned attacks on state institutions, according to Macedonian police. This information comes after shootings by gunfire and the sound of helicopters woke residents of the Macedonian town of Kumanovo on Saturday morning. Macedonian police say they took measures to halt the activities of a small terrorist cell composed of between fifty and seventy people in a neighborhood known as Wild Settlement in the city, where the majority of residents are ethnic Albanian. The Macedonian media has reported that buildings were set on fire and that families with small children were forced to flee the area.
Dozens of police officers were wounded in the shootings, and some sources in the Macedonian media have reported that there have been deaths, though authorities have not yet confirmed this. [UPDATE: It’s now been confirmed that at least five police officers were killed in the fighting – 10/5/15] In Kumanovo, residents are shaken, as a heavy and visible police presence has been brought in, while all entrances to the city have been closed.
Macedonian police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said that according to their information, the terrorist group had intended to organize attacks on state institutions.
“Information that came recently suggested that the group illegally entered Macedonia from a neighboring country and through its supporters sought logistical support and refuge to prepare for future terrorist attacks. The findings indicate that it was a group that is well-armed and trained to fight under these conditions. Special units have been dispatched to resist these plans. They were met with fierce resistance from the terrorists, who attacked them with automatic weapons, grenades and sniper fire. The attack was answered very carefully and [with force] appropriate to the situation,” Kotevski said.
Koteski also asserted that for security reasons authorities carried out a search of all houses in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, security experts warn that the situation in Macedonia could potentially spill over into other parts of the Balkan region.
“The security situation is one of the main indicators of the political situation and the economic and social scars in a country. What this means is that such events that happen in the Balkans operate on the principle of connected vessels. Quick disruptions in the security situation have the potential to spill across borders of these countries,” Ivan Babanoski, a former senior intelligence agent in Macedonia, told Balkanist.
Babanoski also said that the Balkans remains a ‘flashpoint’ and are an ‘active volcano’.
“But unlike [a volcano] in nature, here in the Balkans, eruptions are planned. The destabilization of Macedonia will directly affect the security and political situation in the region and beyond, in the EU as well I believe, where political and diplomatic capacities are spent without any improvement in relations and conditions.”
At the same time, Babanoski doubts that residents of Kumanovo will support terrorism or any escalation in violence.
“My sources on the ground say that there is no chance for a major security breach because the locals do not accept imported criminals from Kosovo playing the role of terrorists,” Babanoski said.
Vladimir Pivovarov, a security professor at FON University in Skopje and the former director of military intelligence in Macedonia said that the situation in the country is more than worrying.
“Security here is threatened because military formations have aimed a rifle at the state. The situation is at a very low level. We have spoken many times about this in the last ten years, as it was anticipated that this could lead to further problems, starting from non-professionals in the police and the law on lustration. It’s very scary when a group from the outside comes to town to do carry out such actions and it is terrible,” Pivovarov said.
Pivovarov says he doesn’t expect that the events of 2001, in which the country experienced an armed conflict, will be repeated now, but that caution is needed.
“For 2001 to be repeated, criminal structures would require support from segments of the general public. Such support structures do not exist in the Macedonian or Albanian population. Since these parameters don’t exist, such a situation can’t be expected. But when it comes to military actions with civilian casualties, the immediate situation has received some minimal support, which is not good,” said Pivovarov.
He added that such incidents serve no one in Macedonia but criminals.
People in the country fear a repetition of 2001, when an armed conflict in the northwest part of Macedonia killed several dozen citizens of Macedonian and Albanian nationality. Pivovarov says that one positive development is that Macedonians and Albanians are united as never before in their aversion to violence and the general destabilization of the country.
“Ethnic communities are cohesive and unified as never before. They only seek freedom and the return of democratic processes in Macedonia, which is entirely legitimate. Unrest, conflicts and inter-ethnic conflicts are a part of the past that will not recur and should not be repeated. Citizens are aware of this, and if political parties have at times instigated all elements of the public in the distortion of relations and encouraged the development of such unrest, they know now that this cannot be repeated,” Wahid Memed, a human rights activist, told Balkanist.
According to Memed, there is no residual desire for a return to the military conflict of 2001 in Macedonia.
“[The events of 2001] should not be repeated because it is not in the interest of any citizen of Macedonia, regardless of their ethnic, religious or national status,” Memed said.
Meanwhile, citizens are concerned about their safety and future, but hope they will not see a reemergence of the violence of 15 years ago.
“What is happening is not going anywhere,” Agron Ismail, a resident of Kumanovo said. “This is not good for the country, for the citizens or for our future. I believe that neither Macedonians nor Albanians will give their support to destructive forces moving forward,” he said.
“Our politicians are to blame,” one elderly resident of Kumanovo said. “They should know what happens when we don’t know anything. In Kumanovo there were never problems between Macedonians and Albanians. We hope that the people will not succumb to such [manipulations].”
Concerns about Saturday’s developments in Macedonia were registered by the European Union, the United States and the neighboring state of Kosovo.
“We have been monitoring the situation and are in constant contact with the authorities and political leaders. We urge citizens to remain calm and to allow a determination of the facts,” the US Embassy in Skopje said.
“The delegation of the European Union is closely monitoring reports of the police operation. We are in contact with the authorities and political parties. We strongly appeal to all citizens and political actors to remain calm and wait for the relevant authorities to establish the facts. We hope to avoid an escalation of tensions,” read a statement issued by the EU Delegation.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo calls on all sides to refrain from violence and to find a solution through political dialogue within the institutions of the state and the Ohrid Agreement that guarantees the integrity of Macedonia and fulfills the rights of communities,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo said in a statement transmitted by TV Alsat M.
Serbian media has said that Serbia has deployed additional police forces to monitor the border with Macedonia.
The Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia has also issued a public statement indicating that the destabilization of Macedonia is unacceptable.
The opposition SDSM has called on Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his coalition partner from the Albanian political party Democratic Union for Integration, Ali Ahmeti, to openly answer to the people of the country and be transparent about what is happening in Macedonia.
“I call on Nikola Gruevski to immediately answer to the citizens of Macedonia and explain what, why, and for what purpose people are attempting to destabilize Macedonia. Are criminal groups from the territory of a neighboring countries entering Macedonia and why? Who organized this and for what purpose? This needs to be done and by Ali Ahmeti. Victims are citizens, both Macedonians and Albanians, policemen and civilians. Now the important thing is to help the civilian population and to provide and guarantee their safety and security. The darkest possible scenario will fail,” said a statement from the SDSM.
The Democratic Union for Integration says that such incidents are in total opposition to the strategic goals of the Albanian people in Macedonia and Kosovo, in Albania, and the Presevo Valley:
“We are convinced that only a stable and secure Macedonia can be of benefit to the entire region, and that any destabilization of the country is not in the interests of the Albanian people in the region.”
Photo credits: Portal Plus Info.