Macedonia said on Sunday its police had wiped out a group of ethnic Albanian veterans of insurgencies in ex-Yugoslavia in a day-long gun battle that left at least 22 dead and deepened fears of instability following months of political crisis.
The government said eight police and 14 members of an "armed group" were killed after police staged a raid in an ethnic Albanian area before dawn on Saturday seeking gunmen from outside Macedonia it said were planning to attack civilian and state targets.
It said 37 officers were wounded in the fighting, which recalled clashes in 2001 between government forces of the Macedonian Slav majority and guerrillas from the ethnic Albanian minority.
Authorities said the death toll could still rise.
"The terrorist group is completely neutralized and eliminated," Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski told a news conference. He said the gunmen were again led by ethnic Albanian former rebel commanders from Kosovo, which broke away fromSerbia in war in 1999.
More than 30 people were arrested and some of them taken before a judge in the capital Skopje. The scene of the fighting, an ethnic Albanian suburb of Kumanovo some 40 km (25 miles) north of Skopje, remained locked down, off-limits to residents and reporters.
Sporadic gunfire could still be heard on Sunday, subsiding in the early afternoon as flat-bed trucks towed away several lightly-damaged armored vehicles.
Kotevski said no civilians were reported killed. Many had fled, carrying their belongings in bags.
The government declared two days of national mourning and President Gjorge Ivanov convened the national security council, inviting leaders of the opposition and the main ethnic Albanian parties in a gesture of unity.
The events will deepen concern in the West over stability in Macedonia, where the government is on the ropes over allegations by opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev of illegal wire-tapping and widespread abuse of office.
Protesters demanding the resignation of conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski clashed with police last week and the opposition is threatening to rally thousands on May 17.
Western states are pressing Gruevski to investigate the allegations against his government, which he says have been concocted by foreign spies.
Foreign political analysts and western diplomats fear political leaders on either side might try to stoke ethnic tensions.
One of the dead police officers was buried on Sunday in the western town of Tetovo, where ethnic Albanians are in the majority. His coffin was draped in the Macedonian flag and escorted by uniformed colleagues.
Albanians in Kumanovo were deeply skeptical of the official version of Saturday's events.
"This is pure manipulation," said 40-year-old unemployed man Elham Murad, who fled his home in the Kumanovo suburb after fighting broke out. He said he had seen nothing unusual in the days leading up to the police operation, except for an unmanned drone flying above the town the day before.
"This is a stunt by Gruevski to cover up Zaev's revelations," he said. Asked if he would attend the May 17 protest, Murad replied: "I'll go, dead or alive."
An estimated 30 percent of Macedonia's 2 million people are ethnic Albanians. Western diplomacy ended the 2001 conflict with a peace deal offering the Albanian minority greater rights and representation.
The insurgents entered government and Macedonia was promised integration with the European Union and NATO, but progress has been blocked by a long-running dispute with Greece over Macedonia's name.
Many citizens, regardless of ethnicity, are frustrated at the slow pace of development and integration with the West. (Additional reporting by Kole Casule in Skopje; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Tom Heneghan)
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