Suspects in Macedonia Turned Over to U.S.
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 7, 2002; Page A16
4 Arrested Near Ambassador's Residence.
SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 6 -- The Macedonian government turned over two Jordanians and two Bosnians to U.S. custody after they were arrested near the U.S. ambassador's residence two weeks ago, Macedonian officials said.
One senior official, who asked not to be identified, said the men arrived in Macedonia shortly before their arrest and were recorded speaking of plans to "destroy the devil." He said he believed they were flown by the United States to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba where Taliban members, al Qaeda fighters and other suspected terrorists are being held.
The arrests came as the government of the small Balkan country is warning Western governments that territory from which it was driven by ethnic Albanian insurgents last year could become a haven for international Islamic terrorists.
Though a peace deal was signed last summer, the Macedonian government has been unable to reestablish its authority in large sections of the country. It is urging Western governments, which it contends have coddled the insurgents, to take a harder line toward them.
On Saturday, Macedonian police shot and killed seven men they said were from Pakistan or the Middle East and possibly on a terror mission aimed at Western facilities in the capital, Skopje.
"It's really shaken the Americans," said one Western official, speaking of the sudden appearance here of so many people with potential terrorist links.
But others here suspect that the emergence of an Islamic terrorist threat dovetails too neatly with what they call a desire by parts of the Macedonian government to demonize the country's Albanian minority. Most ethnic Albanians are Muslims.
Before the arrests of the four men, the Macedonian government turned over to U.S. agents computer disks and other seized material, as well as intercepted communications that included statements such as "we should destroy the devil and the axis," the Macedonian official said.
The official said the "devil" was a reference to the United States and the "axis" included Britain and Germany. He said the disks contained thousands of pages of documents, including imagery from previous conflicts in which mujaheddin, or Islamic holy warriors, had fought.
"On issues relating to the war on terrorism, we are cooperating with the Macedonian authorities," said Leslie C. High, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Skopje. "Beyond that, we don't comment on security matters."
According to the senior Macedonian official, the arrested men were probably students and may have carried Belgian passports. They are suspected of casing U.S. and other Western facilities, including the British and German embassies, he said. He did not provide specific evidence pointing to planned attacks.
In an interview today, Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski said there was a continuing terrorist threat in Macedonia. The government had received intelligence that another group, which he refused to describe, was planning to enter Macedonia to carry out attacks, Boskovski said.
"We are very well prepared for them," Boskovski said. "We are cooperating very well with the Americans."
Boskovski has said repeatedly that mujaheddin were fighting alongside ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.
The seven men who died Saturday were shot around 4 a.m. by the edge of a vineyard in the village of Rastanski Lozja, about six miles outside of Skopje.
According to Western officials, the men appear to have been drinking soda and eating sandwiches when four policemen fired on them with AK-74 rifles from both sides of a small bridge that runs over an irrigation ditch a few yards away.
Macedonian police asserted there was a gun battle, but two Western officials said in interviews that there was no sign of return fire. The officials also noted that the layout of the area would have made it impossible to approach the bridge unobserved and that the police may have lain in wait for the men.
Macedonian and Western officials said the men, dressed in civilian clothes, were carrying bags and a backpack with factory-clean weapons and folded uniforms bearing the insignia of the National Liberation Army (NLA), the ethnic Albanian group that fought Macedonian government forces last year.
Ethnic Albanians and some Macedonians hostile to Boskovski view the clean weapons, unusual in the Balkans, and the uniforms as a plant. They also point to an apparent lack of blood at the scene and the lack of spent cartridges in crime-scene photos.
"Everything seems to me to be a fabrication," said one Macedonian government official who has in the past defended actions by the police but, unlike Boskovski, supports the political accord that ended open warfare and expanded the political rights of ethnic Albanians.
"They do not possess proof for the incident as they describe it," said the official. "It seems to be designed to say, 'We are part of the international coalition against terrorism and you have problems with the same people as we do -- the ethnic Albanians.' "
"I think it's totally . . . political," said Fazli Veliu, a founder of the NLA. The shooting incident "could be improvised."
The ethnic Albanian political leadership, which usually is extremely critical of violent police actions, has been pointedly quiet about the killings. But the ethnic group's media, noting that the lonely gravel road where the shooting occurred is often traveled by economic refugees trying to reach Western Europe, have suggested that the men could have been part of that traffic, rather than terrorists.
Some Western officials said the Interior Ministry may have dissembled on some details, including suggesting there was a firefight, to cover a decision to ambush the suspects and essentially execute them. But one Western official said he was convinced the men were on some armed mission: "I believe it was a legitimate operation," the official said.
What is unmistakable, Western officials say, is that the men were not ethnic Albanian, but were probably from the Indian subcontinent; the bodies were seen by U.S., British and German diplomats. The police said they found Turkish money, a Central Asian script and passport photos with the word Pakistan scribbled out on the back. One of the photos also had the name "Omar Faruk" written on the back.