May 15, 2015 / 4:39 PM / 3 years ago

Macedonia says 10 militants killed, not 14, in weekend gunbattle

SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia’s state prosecutor’s office said on Friday it had found the bodies of 10 ethnic Albanian militants after a gunbattle with police last weekend, not the 14 that authorities earlier said had been killed.

The discrepancy in the death toll adds to the questions being asked of the government about the timing, conduct and purpose of the raid amid political turmoil.

Eight police officers also died during the raid, launched before dawn in a suburb of the northern town of Kumanovo on the orders of a conservative government fighting to stay in power following a flood of allegations of abuse of office.

It came barely a week before opposition protesters say they will take to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, fuelling speculation among some foreign analysts and ethnic Albanians that it was a diversion.

It has since emerged that the government had known for some time of the presence of armed men in the area, many of them from neighboring Kosovo.

Gruevski’s ethnic Albanian coalition partner Ali Ahmeti, who led a guerrilla insurgency in Macedonia in 2001, confirmed he had been in touch with them and tried to negotiate their surrender. Around 30 were arrested.

“We have found 10 bodies of members of the armed terrorist group from the police action in Kumanovo,” a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office told Reuters on Friday.

Both Gruevski and his then interior minister, Gordana Jankulovska, had said earlier that 14 members of what the prime minister described as the “most dangerous terrorist group in the Balkans” had been killed.

Asked about the discrepancy, Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said the first figure was “preliminary, gathered from police officers on the ground”.

The government has said no civilians were hurt or killed. The European Union and NATO, which Macedonia wants to join, have called for a transparent investigation of what went on.

Jankulovska and intelligence chief Saso Mijalkov have since resigned over a wire-tapping scandal that appears to have blown the lid on government control over journalists, judges and the conduct of elections in the ex-Yugoslav republic.

Anti-government protesters are due to rally on Sunday to demand Gruevski quit.

On Friday, opposition leader Zoran Zaev released the latest batch of wire-taps that he says were recorded by the government and leaked to him by a whistleblower.

Voices purported to be those of Jankulovska and Mijalkov are heard using derogatory terms for Albanians, who make up around 30 percent of Macedonia’s 2 million people.

“There’s no co-existing with them,” the voice identified as Jankulovska’s says. “We need to deal with this once and for all.”

Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Roche

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