NATO, EU urge 'restraint' as Macedonia clashes leave 22 dead

Relatives of  policeman Zarko Kuzmanovski mourn next to his coffin draped with the Macedonian flag inside a church during his funeral in the village of Brvenica, Macedonia on Sunday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Relatives of  policeman Zarko Kuzmanovski mourn next to his coffin draped with the Macedonian flag inside a church during his funeral in the village of Brvenica, Macedonia on Sunday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

KUMANOVO, Macedonia (AFP) - NATO and the EU called for a return to calm in Macedonia Sunday after clashes between police and an armed group left at least 22 people dead, raising concerns about alleged ethnic-Albanian unrest in the Balkan region.

"I urge everyone to exercise restraint and avoid any further escalation, in the interest of the country and the whole region," NATO Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

Police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said Sunday that "eight police officers were killed and 37 were injured" in gun battles in Kumanovo, which began at dawn Saturday.

Kotevski also said 14 bodies were discovered at the site. "We can't rule out we'll find even more," he added.

The police operation in Kumanovo, some 40 kilometres north of Skopje was nearly over, the spokesman said, adding the "terrorist group that presented a threat was completely eliminated".

The assailants were from "a particularly dangerous terrorist group" whose members included people sought on international arrest warrants, Kotevski said, adding that group was made up of over 30 people, mostly Macedonian citizens and five presumed ethnic-Albanians from Kosovo and one from Albania.

The interior ministry said some 20 gunmen who surrendered Saturday were to be brought to a Skopje court as an investigation opened into the deadly unrest.

Sporadic fire from automatic weapons could be heard overnight and on Sunday helicopters patrolled overhead, the state-run MIA news agency reported, citing witnesses.

"The situation on the ground is still very risky," Interior Minister Dragana Jankuloska said late Saturday.

As crisis-hit Macedonia declared two days of mourning Sunday, both the European Union and NATO warned of the danger of escalating violence in a part of the country hit by an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001.

Ethnic Albanians make up around one quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million population.

Mindful of the past insurgency and multiple wars during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, EU officials are particularly keen to prevent ethnically-driven violence from erupting in the heart of the continent again.

"Any further escalation must be avoided, not the least in the interest of the overall stability in the country," EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a statement late Saturday.

The violence broke out Saturday when police moved in on the armed group, and met with what Jankuloska described as "violent resistance" from snipers, grenades and automatic weapons.

She said the gunmen were planning a "terrorist attack" on state institutions, and had accomplices in Kumanovo.

Media broadcast images of armoured police vehicles deployed across Kumanovo, with officers clad in bullet-proof jackets.

On Saturday dozens of people, mostly women, children and the elderly, fled the besieged zone, some of them being evacuated by police, according to an AFP photographer.

"We are poor but we were living live without problems ... We don't want a war again as it was in 2001," said Adila, a 59-year-old ethnic Albanian from Kumanovo.

"We want a better life for our children." said the mother of five who did not want to give her last name.

The incident comes less then three weeks after around 40 ethnic Albanians from neighbouring Kosovo briefly seized control of a police station on Macedonia's northern border, demanding the creation of an Albanian state in Macedonia.

Both Albania and Kosovo, as well as Macedonia's ethnic Albanian junior ruling party DUI, strongly condemned Saturday's clashes and called for calm.

Tirana urged restraint while Pristina echoed the view by imploring "all sides to find a solution through a political dialogue." Serbia sent additional forces to its border with both Kosovo and Macedonia, state-run Tanjug news agency reported.

The 2001 Macedonian conflict ended with an agreement providing more rights to the community, but ties between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians remain strained.

The violence in Kumanovo erupted amid political tension in Macedonia, where the government and centre-left opposition have been trading accusations including claims of wiretapping and million-euro bribes.

The crisis has undermined Macedonia's already weak institutions, and also sparked concerns within the 28-nation EU that Skopje hopes to join.