AIM: start

SAT, 16 MAR 2002 15:21:00 GMT

"Jihad Warriors" from Rastanski Lozja

As time passes since the Saturday police operation in the outskirts of Skopje in which seven foreign citizens were killed the number of questions that require an answer is increasing

AIM Skoplje, March 7, 2002

According to the first statement issued a few hours after the operation by Macedonian police, at dawn on Saturday a police patrol observed a van with a seven-member armed group in it on location at Rastanski Lozja about ten kilometres from the centre of Skoplje. Since the vehicle failed to stop at a warning of the police, the group started shooting at the police jeep. The police shot back and all seven armed men in the van were killed. To a logical question of a journalist how it was possible for just four policemen to deal with the larger group of armed men, it was stated that "it is pure luck that there were no victims among the policemen".

Minister of internal affairs Ljube Boskovski revealed at a specially convened press conference that some ten days prior the mentioned police operation they had received information about a terrorist group that had entered the country in order to attack embassies and state leaders. Two weeks ago in the vicinity of German embassy in Skoplje, a four-member "group of jihad warriors" was arrested - two citizens of Jordan and two of B&H with disks which contained precious data on the involvement of the mentioned "jihad warriors" in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Boskovski declared that these four had admitted that another group had also entered the country with the intention to attack foreign embassies! According to the information issued at the mentioned press conference, the persons killed on Saturday were foreign citizens most probably from Pakistan. They were dressed in civilian clothes but they had with them the uniforms of the National Liberation Army, four automatic Kalasnyikov rifles, grenades, hand mortars, radio-station and Turkish liras. According to the preliminary findings of experts, the killed men were not shot at from a small distance.

Director of State Security and Counter-Intelligence Service Nikola Spasovski hurriedly informed the public that there had been indications for quite some time that Skoplje was the possible new centre for individual terrorists or such groups from Islamic countries that might be linked to certain members of the self-disbanded National Liberation Army.

All the world media carried this story that reminds of a film scenario. Colleagues from the West could do nothing but envy Macedonian agents and policemen: they had made a very important "catch"! But, there is always a "but"!

The American, British and German Embassy, mentioned as the possible targets, claim that they had no idea that they were threatened by a terrorist attack. American Embassy was informed about the case by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the British learnt about it on television. The office of the NATO had received no warnings either, nor had it any information about a possible attack. On Saturday, the embassies were given robust police security forces to guard them, including armoured vehicles. Later somebody obviously whispered to minister Boskovski that it would be better to carry out the operation with more subtlety.

However, the public was not informed that the Embassy of Bosnia & Herzegovina in the capital of Macedonia intervened with the local authorities that its two citizens had been arrested downtown Skoplje just because their appearance reminded of the generally accepted notion on "jihad warriors" and because they had the passports of Bosnia & Herzegovina! They had arrived to Skoplje in order to obtain Bulgarian visas in the embassy in Skoplje in order to travel from Sofia to the capital of Jordan, Aman, where they are studying Islamic theology. Nobody mentioned disks, confessions and "terrorist activities". The lads were released. To this day, no satisfactory answer has arrived to the protest note of Ambassador Fahrudin Kulenovic.

Although he had previously announced more details, in the next following days Boskovski could just tell journalists that two of the killed persons were Pakistani and that the others were "not Kurds" (as people started to guess). The public was, probably, expected to sigh with relief, but alas! About the Pakistani Boskovski said that they had participated in the battles in Afghanistan and then were transported to the Balkan.

Western diplomats who about that time saw the bodies of the members of the group told the media that four were of Asian origin, but the identity of the remaining three was vague. Representatives of NATO and OSCE complained that they were not even enabled to see the bodies.

The questions that started to rack the brains of Macedonian journalists are numerous: why was the public shown only photos of two persons whose names were determined when their clothes were searched? What happened to the van in which the group had ridden? And similar. Western diplomats confirmed for A1 TV station that the bodies were riddled with bullets and that they were shot at from at least two directions. This leads to the conclusion that the operation was not naive or accidental but well-organized, in other words that it did not involve only four policemen (as it was stated at first). Assumptions also appeared that the group was caught in an ambush.

The oppositionist Utrinski vesnik stated on Tuesday that Saturday operation was initiated by American intelligence services which had informed Macedonian police that the described group was preparing terrorist attacks on Western embassies and Macedonian vital institutions. The journal noted, however, that the case was accompanied by many controversies. If the initial statement of the minister of internal affairs Ljube Boskovski is true that the group was the first to attack, it is quite surprising that all its members were killed. It is also surprising that nobody heard the shooting; that is why the assumption that these men were killed elsewhere and that the investigation took place near Rastanski Lozje.

In Albanian political circles it is generally believed that the victims of the police operation were in fact ordinary illegal residents who had nothing to do with "jihad warriors". Fakti, journal in Albanian, concludes that this was "a spectacle organized by Minister of internal affairs Ljube Boskovski". In this way, according to the journal, Boskovski wishes to achieve several goals: first, to involve Macedonia in the global plan of the struggle against terrorism, second, to get on the good side of foreign diplomats by bringing armoured transporters in front of their embassies, third, to promote the controversial unit called the "Lions", fourth, to prove the alleged connection of the National Liberation Army with criminal organization Al'qaida, and fifth, to show in practice that the border with Kosovo is the source of all the problems in Macedonia. Albanian National Army also issued a statement: "The video tape with the evidence on seven "jihad warriors" - terrorists and their Albanian connections was doctored". "With staged murders Boskovski and his helpers are trying to win favours of the international community in order to wash their hands of the crimes they committed" it was said in the statement.

At the briefing in the Ministry of Internal Affairs on Tuesday evening it was said that Macedonian office of Interpol was working on the case. Reporters of some media in Skoplje state that they were told that "the seven" were followed since December last year and that they communicated with their headquarters and harbourers in Albanian!? When and where the Asians learnt Albanian - remains to be proved.

KFOR command in Kosovo volunteered to have its experts do the autopsy of the bodies. So did OSCE. The request was turned down with the explanation that Skoplje Institute of Forensic Medicine has a high reputation in the world. NATO Ambassador in Skoplje said that "the version of the police must be accepted. But what was said is not enough. There are many open questions: where did the group come from and why. There were several versions of the incident. The current one is that the men were moving on foot and that after they had opened fire at the police vehicle, they were killed", says he. The request for an independent investigation was repeated at the regular press conference of international organizations on Wednesday.

Spokesman of the European Union Irena Djuzelova commented on all the doubts of the international community with a single conclusion and a few questions: "It's not that we don't believe the police or have doubts about its findings. The problem is that we have no evidence!" The questions the spokesman raises seem quite logical: Who were the seven killed men? What were they doing in Macedonia? Where had they come from? Did they have any support in the country? Even if they know or think that they do, Macedonian authorities certainly have not offered answers to all these questions.

And the killed men... They have taken the answers to their graves. Dead men tell no tales.