- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

SKOPJE, Macedonia Three weeks after the fact, almost nothing is clear about the case of seven foreigners killed by Macedonian police in a village just outside the capital, Skopje.
On March 2, Macedonian police announced they had killed seven gunmen in a shootout. The police said the gunmen were foreigners, probably Pakistanis, who were affiliated with al Qaeda and were planning attacks on the U.S., British and German embassies in Skopje.
They also said the men had on them uniforms of the National Liberation Army, a group of ethnic Albanians that rebelled last year in a conflict that killed 300 and revived fears of another Balkan war.
The report was greeted with keen skepticism. International officials and journalists were not allowed to see any of the key evidence. Representatives of the embassies said they weren't aware of any threats against them, and after the shootings, the government stepped up security at only the American Embassy and then only for a few hours.
"We don't have any sort of information about a threat, and they've never been able to provide us with any," one Western diplomat said.
The government's authority was eroded further when it significantly changed the details of the story. At first, police said that the men were in a van and had opened fire on a police checkpoint. Then they changed the story to say that the men were on foot in a vineyard.
The government did allow Western officials to see four of the bodies, and they were reported to appear South Asian. The other three have not been seen.
No police were injured, no cartridges or bullets were found at the site, and only one small bloodstain was found, said one government representative who disputes the official version of events. He added that no van has been produced, that the weapons seized showed no sign of being fired, and that there was too much equipment "seized" to be logically carried by men on foot.
"My guess is that these seven people were illegal immigrants who had nothing to do with Afghanistan or mujahedeen, and were misused by our government," said the official, who conceded that he didn't have access to the government evidence.
He said the government may have thought it was a no-lose proposition. "For domestic reasons, the government can say we are strong in our commitment to defend the country from mujahedeen, and for external use it makes Macedonia look like a fighter in the war against terrorism."
Ever since the U.S.-led war against terrorism began last year, the government has tried to say that the NLA comprised mujahedeen, or Islamist fighters, backed by Islamic terrorists, and spokesmen were fond of calling the NLA "the Taliban of Europe." But no concrete tie has been established.
Ali Ahmeti, the former head of the NLA, said he had never been approached by Islamist fighters but thought that some of his fighters may have been. Still, he dismissed charges that any holy warriors were under his command.
"There were a lot of people with beards because we were on the top of the mountain. But not every guy with a beard is a mujahedeen."
Another speculation is that the incident was related to the arrival of U.N. war crimes investigators who came to look at a nearby site where six Albanian civilians were killed. The New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch reported that Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski was on the scene, and it is widely speculated in Skopje that he will be indicted by the war crimes court at The Hague.
"Those who expect to be indicted sometimes try to do funny things about it to try to get on the good side of the international community," said Ed Joseph, a Skopje-based analyst with the think tank International Crisis Group. The Hague "is weighing on [Mr. Boskovskis] mind," he said.


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