(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)
Authorities in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have identified five men they say are leaders of an armed group planning to carry out imminent attacks.
22 people were killed, among them eight police officers, in a raid on the northern town of Kumanovo, which the government claims has neutralised the threat.
But as Kristina Kukolja reports, some fear the incident could deepen a political crisis that’s already putting Europe on edge.
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Police in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have released fresh video footage from the weekend clashes that left a suburb of Kumanovo in ruins.
They say, when the dust settled, 14 suspected militants were found dead, and that number could still rise.
Of those who surrendered to Macedonian authorities, 30 have reportedly been charged.
Police have identified by name five of the men they allege were the most prominent leaders of the group, revealing them to all be citizens of neighbouring Kosovo.
In a statement to SBS, the Macedonian Embassy in Canberra said their suspected followers came from both sides of the border.
“In the past several years, its members were involved in a number of attacks. Among the members of the group there are citizens from (the) Republic of Kosovo and Republic of Macedonia. According to the interrogation, some of them confirm that the group started entering the country at the beginning of the month, preparing in mid May to assault state institutions and civilian infrastructure.”
The statement describes them as one of the most dangerous criminal groups, with political ambitions in the region.
It goes on to say that, late last month, some of their members attacked a Macedonian police post on the Kosovo border.
And apparently, at least four of them were in Kumanovo.
The Macedonian government insists the violence was not ethnically motivated, as was the case more than a decade earlier.
Still, Serbia has moved to reinforce its southern border with Macedonia.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic old the Euronews service, his country wants to help.
“To help them out to overcome these bumps on the road and to create a stable environment in their country. And whatever they think we might be helpful, we’ll deliver on it, because that is the most important issue for all of us. If we’ll have riots and unrest in Macedonia it might easily spill over to the other areas of the Western Balkans.”
Developments out of Kumanovo were closely followed by the resignations of Macedonia’s interior minister and intelligence agency head.
The two are apparently unrelated; the latter linked, rather, to serious allegations of abuse of power being made against the government.
Earlier this year the opposition began releasing to the media audio recordings of allegedly wiretapped conversations, which if true would suggest interference in the judiciary, media, elections and public sector appointments.
Protests on the streets of the capital Skopje have been growing, and the European Union increasingly pressing for Macedonia’s leadership to address the allegations.
And while some supporters of the government accuse demonstrators of merely opposing its conservative agenda, activist Jasmina Golubovska tells Al Jazeera that argument misses the point.
“This is not a situation where a right wing government, specially with indication that it likes to establish a free market, is under attack. This is a very grave situation where we the citizens got information on how the government controls society. We are discussing a grave breach of people’s freedoms, especially of the voters’ rights, of their security, their wellbeing, and mostly privacy. No one feels safe in this country regardless of the source of information.”