Four ethnic Albanian gunmen were killed in a shootout with
police in northern Macedonia, police said, one of the most serious
reported clashes since a 2001 ethnic conflict.
Police said the uniformed gunmen opened fire from their truck at a police checkpoint near the village of Radusa where officials were stopping vehicles to prevent arms smuggling near the border between Macedonia and Kosovo.
Police returned fire and the four occupants of the truck were killed, Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska told reporters, adding that none of the policemen were injured.
"There is no reason for the people to worry. The police have full control and have all the relevant information about the security of the country and its population," Jankulovska said.
Police found a large cache of weapons in the truck.
Two of the gunmen appeared to be ethnic Albanians from
Macedonia, and one from neighbouring Kosovo; the origin of the
fourth was not yet known.
Last week Macedonian police discovered a large amount of illegal arms near the border with Kosovo after exchanging fire with another group of ethnic Albanians.
Police said there was no evidence at this point to link the two
The US embassy in Skopje commended the police action against what it called "criminal elements evidently planning violent acts against the citizens of Macedonia".
"We reaffirm our strong opposition to and condemnation of violence and those who promote it," US Ambassador Philip Reeker said in a written statement.
A police spokesperson said the gunmen were wearing black uniforms and police found emblems with the "UCK" insignia of the National Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian rebel group that fought Macedonian security forces during the 2001 ethnic conflict.
The rebel army was disbanded and disarmed in late 2001 under a Western-brokered peace deal that ended the fighting and gave ethnic Albanians, who make up a third of Macedonia's two million population, more civil rights.
Last month, European Union and US ambassadors warned the country that the deal was in danger because of nationalist rhetoric from politicians on both sides.
Several thousand ethnic Albanians marched on the streets of the capital Skopje on Monday protesting against government policies, which they said discriminated against minority rights.