Macedonia jails 33 men over deadly shootout

Skopje (AFP) –


A Macedonian court on Thursday handed lengthy jail terms, including seven life sentences, to 33 ethnic Albanian men over a shootout with police in 2015 that left 18 people dead.

Eight police officers and 10 gunmen were killed and dozens injured in the murky clashes, which erupted in the ethnically-mixed northern town of Kumanovo near the border with Kosovo.

The two-day shootout in May 2015 was the worst unrest in Macedonia since an Albanian insurgency in 2001, which ended with a deal providing greater rights for the minority group.

Twenty-nine men were convicted of terror charges for attacking the police in Kumanovo with weapons stolen a month earlier from a mountainous village police station.

The men, mostly from Kosovo and Macedonia, denied the charges when the trial opened last year and said they acted in self-defence.

Another four were found guilty of aiding the armed group, while four more suspected accomplices were acquitted.

Seven of those convicted were handed life sentences and the others received between 12 and 40 years each.

"These are serious criminal acts for which the prosecutor has submitted evidence showing that the accused committed them," judge Verka Petkovska told the courtroom in Skopje.

- Set-up allegations -

The shootout took place at a time of political turmoil in Macedonia, with mass rival protests in the capital Skopje after the government of conservative premier Nikola Gruevski -- since ousted -- was accused of mass wire-tapping.

Some ethnic Albanians and political opponents suspected Gruevski's government of having a hand in the unrest to divert attention from the political crisis, which it strongly denied.

Defence lawyer Naser Raufi said after the verdict that he did not expect such heavy sentences, alleging that the shootout was "a case orchestrated by the secret services" and calling for an independent investigation.

Security was heavy in Skopje and the atmosphere tense in the courtroom as the verdict was delivered.

A number of the defendants were removed from the courtroom for chanting about avenging the victims and a "Greater Albania", according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

After the shootout occurred, several thousand people attended the funeral in Kosovo of eight of the killed gunmen, who also fought in Kosovo's war pitting ethnic Albanian rebels against Serb forces in the late 1990s.

Ethnic Albanians account for about a quarter of Macedonia's two million people.