Macedonian police spokesman Ivo Koteski told Reuters that Wednesday’s dawn raid aimed to bring in a criminal group operating around Tetovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian area some 30 miles northwest of the Macedonian capital Skopje. Police reported no police casualties and denied reports from NATO peacekeepers in neighboring Kosovo that a Macedonian police helicopter had been downed in the incident.
The raid, however, sparked a firefight between black-clad ethnic Albanian gunmen and the Macedonian police, who used both ground forces and police helicopters to subdue the group in the area, the same region that saw a near-civil war between ethnic Albanian rebels and Macedonian security forces in 2001. Witnesses told the Financial Times that four houses were burning and that a mosque had been damaged.
The police’s main target, according to the Financial Times and the Associated Press, was an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo who escaped from the province’s Dubrava prison along with seven other inmates in August. Lirim Jakupi had fled to Kosovo two years ago after a shootout with the Macedonian police in Tetovo, and was arrested by United Nations police in the province. Last week another fugitive from the jailbreak, Xhavid Morina, was shot and killed in the same region, but police said his death was the result of a skirmish between rival criminal gangs.
Both sides of the Kosovo-Macedonia border have seen tensions increase in recent weeks as reports of masked men setting up checkpoints have filtered out of the region. Kosovo public television last month interviewed members of the self-styled Albanian National Army about their vow to protect their ethnic Albanian brethren from possible Serbian attacks in the province. Weighing heavily on the region is the fate of Kosovo, a Serbian province of some 2 million people that has been under UN administration since 1999.