Ethnic Albanians rallied in several Macedonian towns on Friday (11 May) to protest against a police operation that saw suspects arrested in the deaths of five people. The regional press saw the protests as a sign of rising radical Islam in the country.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians demonstrated against the arrest of three men charged over the killing of five Macedonians last month.
Photos from the scenes showed that many of the protestors waved Saudi flags and that some wore T-shirts with inscriptions such as “Islam will dominate the world”.
On 13 April five slain Macedonian fishermen were discovered beside a lake in the village of Smiljkovci north of Skopje. Four of the victims were in their late teens or early 20s. The fifth was a man in his 40s. On 1 May, police arrested 20 people, including radical Islamists who reportedly fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, as suspects in the murders.
Demonstrators shouting slogans such as "UCK" (the now-defunct liberation movement in Kosovo in the late 1990s), "See you in the mountains" and "Greater Albania", threw rocks at police, the SETimes reported. The news site also reported that protestors attacked the offices of Skopje's Chair municipality whose mayor, Izet Medziti, belongs to the ruling Albanian party Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).
"Clearly they do not want co-existence – their slogans betray the goal to misuse Islam to create an ethnically pure state, which means conflict in the region. Slogans in support of the Democratic Party of Albanians also betray the involvement of some political parties to benefit from such an abuse of religion," Ivan Babanovski, a former security studies professor, told SETimes.
The Serbian news agency Tanjug reported that protestors also carried banners against the Macedonian government and Prime Minster Nikola Gruevski, whom they called a “terrorist” and a “Chetnik”, a reference to the Serbian nationalist movement that used terror tactics against Muslims during World War II. They shouted “murderers” at the police.
The demonstrators also carried banners saying that “Serbs and Macedonians” were responsible for the murder of the five men.
Protests were also reported in the towns of Gostivar and Tetovo.
There is widespread belief among analysts and the Macedonian public that the protests are intended to destabilise Macedonia prior to the NATO summit in Chicago on 20-21 May. Macedonia’s bid to join NATO was blocked in 2008 by Greece over the long-standing name dispute between Athens and Skopje.
Some analysts in the region now worry of renewed attempts to carve out an ethnic Albanian state in western Macedonia.
According to security experts, there are an estimated 5,000 battle-hardened Islamists from the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and a past conflict in Macedoni? living in the region.
Dzevad Galijaševi?, a member of the Southeast Europe Expert Team for the Fight against Terrorism and Organised Crime, told SETimes the number of Wahabbis followers is far greater. He argued that regional countries should cut off the Wahabbis' financial channels, and arrest the leaders and most prominent members who espouse violence.