Five rebels shot dead by police in Skopje as peace edges closer

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The Independent Online

A trail of blood led to the front door of 107 Virgino Street, a small, crumbling bungalow in Skopje's Albanian quarter on Tuesday. Inside, pieces of brain lay in a pool of congealed blood on the thin foam mattresses where the victims had been sleeping. In one corner was a broken bit of skull.

This was the scene of the first killing in Macedonia's capital.

Police shot dead five men in a raid on the house before dawn yesterday, according to the Interior Ministry. It came as the European Union mediator, Francois Leotard, said a peace deal could be signed within "hours".

Some 200 armed police surrounded the house in Virgino Street and shots rang out at about 4.30am local time.

The Interior Ministry claimed the five men killed were members of the Albanian rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), planning to begin a campaign of "urban terrorism".

The Interior Minister, Ljube Boskovski, said: "A terrorist group was preparing an attack on Skopje and the police carried out an operation early this morning."

There were inconsistencies between the official version of events and the evidence at the scene. Mr Boskovski said: "We tried to arrest them, but during the operation we encountered strong armed resistance." But an investigator on the scene from the Human Rights Watch (HRW) organisation said there was no evidence of "strong armed resistance".

Peter Bouckaert, of HRW, said: "It's pretty clear that the men were lying down when they were shot. We could not find more than 10 bullets on the scene, and they all appeared to have been fired in the direction of the killed men. None appeared to have been fired back at the police."

Nobody disputed that the dead men were members of the NLA. Albanians in the area said it was public knowledge that the NLA members had been staying at the house for weeks. Several people, believed to be children, were taken away by police after the raid. Children's toys and clothes lay scattered outside the house after a police search of the premises.

The police said they had arrested 30 men and displayed guns captured in the raid.

A Western observer said the timing of the police raid was disturbing. It came as negotiators were putting pressure the Macedonian side to sign a peace deal yesterday.

The deal looked close to being agreed on Sunday before the Macedonian side made unexpected new demands at the 11th hour for the rebels to disarm before the deal was finalised. British troops are to oversee the disarmament as part of a Nato task force.

But last night, there were reports that the Macedonians were softening their position on the issue.

Some observers have accused the Macedonian side of trying to wreck the peace process and there were charges that yesterday's police raid was part of the same aim.

A rebel commander, codenamed Leka, said the army had caused extensive mortar damage to the village of Neprosteno, north-west of the mainly Albanian town of Tetovo. He said: "Shelling civilians' houses doesn't contribute to the peace of this country."

By the same token, if the government claim that the rebels were planning imminent attacks in Skopje is true, those attacks could have been a rebel attempt to derail the peace talks.

* Ukraine is to suspend exports of heavy weapons to Macedonia, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.