Macedonia began two days of national mourning on Sunday, following a day of bloody gun battles in the country’s restive north that left at least 22 people dead and dozens more injured.
The Macedonian Interior Ministry said eight police officers and 14 militants were killed when police launched a dawn raid Saturday against a “terrorist group” composed of ethnic Albanian paramilitaries in the northern frontier town of Kumanovo.
Another 37 police officers were injured in the fighting, which pitted what authorities described as a 44-member militant cell against the forces of the predominantly ethnic Slav Macedonian police.
“One of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Balkans has been neutralized,” Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said during a news conference in Skopje, the Macedonian capital.
A number of the militants are believed to have infiltrated Kumanovo from neighboring Kosovo, which separated from Serbia in 1999, over the last week.
Several dozen militants – including ethnic Albanians from Macedonia – and a stockpile of weapons and ammunition were reportedly captured by Macedonian authorities. Sporadic gunfire could be heard early Sunday, according to residents, as the operation came to a close.
A paramilitary group, the National Liberation Army, said its militants were the target of Saturday’s police raid.
In a statement published in the Albanian media, the group reportedly said its planned operation was part of an “ongoing fight for freedom and national (Albanian) dignity.”
The National Liberation Army, also known as the UCK, was founded in the late 1990s and fought in Macedonia's 2001 civil war, seeking greater rights for Albanians in Macedonia.
Closely allied with the now-defunct Kosovo Liberation Army, its fighters are mostly drawn from Albanian areas of Macedonia and Serbia — particularly the Presevo Valley — where the idea of a “greater Albania” carries significant public support.
Kumanova is 25 miles northeast of Skopje, near the Serbian-Kosovan borders. Known as the “Kosovo Triangle,” the region is a stronghold of Albanian organized crime, which stores large quantities of heroin destined for Western Europe in the area.
Profits from the drug trade have previously funded Albanian militant groups.
The fighting has raised fears that the Balkans — still recovering from the bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia and simmering ethnic tensions — is entering another phase of bitter ethnic violence. Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia were all once part of Yugoslavia, which dissolved in 1992.
Ethnic Albanians represent a significant minority in Macedonia and have oft complained of discrimination at the hands of the majority Slavs.
“I am worried,” said Skopje resident Stefanija Cuskarovska, who is originally from Kumanovo and was reached via Skype. “We must all stay calm and not propagate any violence.”
Flags flew at half-staff in Skopje as mourners laid candles and wreaths of flowers in a show of respect for the police killed during the operation. The Skopje marathon, scheduled for Sunday, was canceled, with officials citing “security concerns.”
“We ran 12 kilometers anyway,” said 24-year-old student Marija Bogdanovska, “to remember the policemen who were killed.”
Saturday’s bloodshed came as Skopje faces a growing political crisis.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Macedonia last week demanding the resignation of conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski while lamenting alleged abuse of office and widespread government wiretapping.
A series of leaked wiretaps have fueled further anger, seemingly illustrating government complicity in covering up the death of a protester four years ago and police brutality.
Johnson is a special correspondent.