The violence in Kumanovo has raised concerns about possible ethnic-Albanian unrest in the volatile Balkan region
Kumanovo (Macedonia) (AFP) - Thirty alleged gunmen were charged Monday with terror offences after a bloody shootout with Macedonian police left 22 dead, including eight police officers, and dozens of homes destroyed in a town close to the border with Kosovo.
The clashes in Kumanovo at the weekend were the worst in Macedonia for 14 years, and raised fears of fresh unrest similar to the country's 2001 ethnic conflict.
Eighteen of the 30 men charged were ethnic Albanians from neighbouring Kosovo, a Macedonian prosecutor said in a statement. The breakaway territory's top leaders condemned "any involvement" of Kosovans in the deadly shootings.
But the Macedonian opposition and analysts suggested the timing of the violence -- with the government under huge pressure over a series of alleged misdemeanours -- was suspicious.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for calm, calling on all sides to "exercise maximum restraint and to refrain from any rhetoric and/or actions that may escalate tensions further."
In the district where the shootout took place -- consisting of several dozen houses and around a dozen small narrow streets populated by both Macedonians and ethnic Albanians -- signs of large-scale destruction were everywhere to be seen.
Cars and houses were destroyed, with some completely burned down, and a large amount of debris lay on the ground, while broken windows and bullet holes were visible on almost every house in the neighbourhood.
Bafti Ramadan, a 57-year old Albanian, stood in despair in front of his home, whose roof and upper floor were burned out. Cartridge cases were scattered around the entrance of the house.
"I was awaken by grenades early on Saturday morning. I immediately went to the basement with my family and we hid there until police came in the evening," Ramadan told AFP.
"We were taken to Skopje for questioning and released only on Sunday morning. When we came back we found our house destroyed and robbed, I saw blood stains in a room on the floor," the old man said in disbelief.
- 'Particularly dangerous terrorist group' -
Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski claimed a "particularly dangerous terrorist group" of ethnic Albanians had been planning a major attack in the Balkan country.
The incident came less than three weeks after around 40 Kosovo Albanians briefly seized control of a police station on Macedonia's northern border, demanding the creation of an Albanian state in Macedonia.
The largest Albanian party in Macedonia, DUI, which is also Gruevski's coalition partner, led by former guerrilla leader Ali Ahmeti, said in a statement that the "security incidents in recent months are not in line with our strategic orientation and do not represent the interest of the Albanian nation in the country and in the region."
The shooting erupted Saturday at dawn when police moved in on the armed group. Eight officers were killed and 37 injured, while 14 bodies were found at the site.
Ethnic Albanians make up around one quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million population.
The 2001 Macedonian conflict with ethnic Albanian rebels ended with an agreement providing more rights to the minority community. However, relations between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians remain strained.
- Questions raised -
The police operation raised questions among local residents.
Some of Kumanovo's inhabitants, both Macedonians and Albanians, told reporters they had "no idea" who the gunmen were or where they came from.
"All this is created by the authorities," an Albanian in his 40s, who did not want to reveal his name, told AFP.
His Macedonian neighbour, who also wanted to remain anonymous, echoed his words: "This is how Gruevski solves problems, but his power will end," the 58-year-old man said.
NATO and the EU have called for a return to calm.
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 resurfacing.
The attack should not distract attention from Macedonia's "very serious internal political situation" or be used "to introduce ethnic tensions", EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said Monday.
The violence in Kumanovo broke out as Macedonia is embroiled in a deep political crisis. Gruevski's government is accused by the opposition of wiretapping, covering up murder and million-euro bribes.
"It's very suspicious, just when the public opinion seems to be turning against the government, suddenly there is a terrorist threat," said James Ker-Lindsay, a South East Europe researcher at the London School of Economics.
"This is not to say there is no terrorist threat, there could be... but the trouble is that the trust in the government is so low now that even people who usually don't buy into Balkan conspiracy theories cannot dismiss the idea that maybe this was orchestrated," he told AFP.
Petar Silegov, of the main opposition Socialist SDSM, said the Kumanovo violence would not deter the party from continuing with anti-government protests, including a rally scheduled for Sunday.