SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's foreign minister on Friday dismissed allegations that a recent battle between ethnic Albanian gunmen and police forces was linked with one of the deepest political crises the country has faced in its 24 years of independence.
However, the presence of an armed group in the border town of Kumanovo shows the country's northern border with Kosovo is vulnerable, Nikola Poposki told The Associated Press in an interview. He found the European Union at fault for the country's current predicament for staving off the country's accession to the 28-member bloc.
Macedonia has been an EU candidate since 2005 and was invited to join NATO in 2008. But its progress has been blocked in part by neighboring Greece, which objects to its use of the name Macedonia, which is also the name of a northern Greek province.
"The amount of frustration that has been caused in Macedonian society is obvious," Poposki said. "Some of the conclusion that should be deducted from the current situation is that if you (do) not secure the credible part on the euro-Atlantic integration for the countries in the region, the consequences are obvious."
Prosecutors on Friday revised the casualty figures from the clashes, which began last Saturday, saying eight police and 10 fighters had been killed rather than the originally announced 14 fighters. That brings the total number killed to 18 instead of 22, while another 37 special police officers were wounded. Authorities said they had launched an operation on a house used by the gunmen to prevent an attack. Some among the group wore insignia of now-disbanded ethnic Albanian rebel groups that fought against Serb and Macedonian forces in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"It is not the first time that we have conspiracy theories in this part of the world," Poposki said, referring to suggestions made by some politicians that the gunbattle was instigated by those wanting to divert attention from the political crisis triggered by a massive wiretapping scandal.
The opposition claims Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is behind the illegal wiretapping of 20,000 people, and opposition head Zoran Zaev has been releasing a series of damning leaks of the recorded conversations. The government denies the allegations and counters that Zaev is plotting a coup.
"The fact on the ground is dramatic," Poposki said about the weekend fighting.
He said that on one side, the police operation successfully dealt with the threat without any civilian casualties.
"The other side of it is that it has shown that there are vulnerable parts of our border and ultimately people that would like to seize these sort of opportunities to spread terror and destabilize the country," he added.
The minister said radical extremists were still located in the area, and some — which he said included those who had fought in Kumanovo — had a "bigger agenda." Some politicians in the Balkans claim that the idea of a "Greater Albania" that would unite Albanian-speaking populations in Kosovo, Albania and parts of southern Serbia and Macedonia, are still high on the agenda of radical groups.
"The facts are that we have a serious, probably the most serious security situation that we faced since independence," Poposki said.
In 2001, ethnic Albanian rebels who took up arms against government forces demanding greater rights for the minority community. The brief conflict left more than 80 people dead and ended with an internationally brokered ceasefire and the arrival of foreign peacekeepers.
It is still unclear how this weekend's clashes began. The government said police forces mounted an operation after tracking an armed group of about 50 men to a house in Kumanovo. Last month, Macedonian police said a smaller group attacked a border watchtower, briefly taking two Macedonian border guards hostage before releasing them unharmed.
Poposki said that "the most important thing" for Macedonia was to not allow any kind of inter-ethnic tensions to spread, and he described cooperation with authorities in neighboring Kosovo, from where most of the gunmen are believed to have come, as "very open and direct."
He added that Macedonia needed to "focus the energy now on dealing with the political crisis inside, not providing any ground to (a) radical group that would like to use or abuse the situation of uncertainty."