Did Macedonia’s Intelligence Agency stage a deadly shootout to distract from a corruption scandal? Three years after the Kumanovo incident, Benjamin Arifi sifts through the evidence.
Like many roads in ethnically mixed parts of Macedonia, Tode Mendol in the northern town of Kumanovo has two unofficial names. Ethnic Albanians call it “the Street of Brave Men”. To everyone else, it is “the Wild Street”. In the early hours of May 9, 2015, it became a warzone.
“The shooting started while we were praying,” recalled Eljesa Mahmudi, imam of the New Mosque serving the street’s mostly Albanian community. “We had no idea what was happening.” Around the corner on Pero Ilievski Street, an explosion awoke Ramadan Baftiu, a part-time taxi driver. The narrow cul de sac was swarming with police armed with Kalashnikovs. “I barricaded myself in the basement for around 14 hours while everything happened just outside,” he said.
Over the next two days, units of Macedonia’s anti-terrorist police laid siege to 39 ethnic Albanian gunmen holed up in three rented houses on Pero Ilievski. Wearing military fatigues and bulletproof vests, they burst into the home of Nezir Murtezi, a pensioner who lived two doors from one of the houses under attack. “The police shot from my terrace, from my living room, from my hall,” he said. “They went at it with everything they had.”
It turned out that 31 of the besieged gunmen were from across the border in Kosovo, veterans of war with Serbia in the late 1990s. They returned fire with sniper rifles, AK-47s and machine guns. The battle devastated the neighbourhood. Explosions turned houses to rubble and incinerated cars. Armoured vehicles crushed walls.
By 9 pm on May 10, 2015, when the last of the gunmen had surrendered, police casualties stood at eight dead and 37 injured. Ten of the gunmen, including the group’s leaders, were killed in the fighting, police later said. Nikola Gruevski, then Prime Minister, addressed the nation on live television. Grim-faced, he said police had thwarted a “terrorist group” that had snuck across the border, planning “massive killing” at police stations, shopping malls and sports events. “One thing is certain,” he said. “Their aim was to destabilise Macedonia.”
Three years later, with a new government in Skopje, there is anything but certainty about the motives of the gunmen. In early November 2017, the Skopje Criminal Court sentenced 33 men to a combined 745 years in prison on terrorism charges. Seven got life sentences while others received jail terms ranging from 12 to 40 years. Four men were acquitted. But the trial did little to answer a burning question on many people’s lips: who ordered the gunmen to go to Kumanovo in the first place? Who was behind it all? Nor did the trial quell calls for an international inquiry into the incident at a politically sensitive time for Macedonia as it seeks NATO membership and EU accession talks, both blocked by neighbouring Greece over a long-running bilateral name dispute.
Prosecutors had insisted the group acted on its own, bent on killing in the name of greater rights for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. They had been under surveillance before attempts to arrest them turned into a bloodbath, they said. All the defendants had denied the terrorism charges, saying they acted in self-defence after police started attacking them. Some said they had been victims of a politically motivated set-up, lured to Kumanovo by Macedonian authorities where a trap awaited.