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Fake macedonia terror tale and deaths { May 17 2004 }

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May 17, 2004
A Fake Macedonia Terror Tale That Led to Deaths

SKOPJE, Macedonia, May 14 - Roughly two months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, a group of high-level officials met here in Macedonia's Interior Ministry to determine how their country could take part in the United States-led campaign against terror.

Instead of offering troops to support American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, as other countries in the region had done, senior officials and police commanders conceived a plan to "expose" a terrorist plot against Western interests in Skopje, police investigators here say.

The plan, they say, involved luring foreign migrants into the country, executing them in a staged gun battle, and then claiming they were a unit backed by Al Qaeda intent on attacking Western embassies.

On March 2, 2002, this plan came to fruition when Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski announced that seven "mujahedeen" had been killed earlier that day in a shootout with the police near Skopje. Photos were released to Western diplomats showing bodies of the dead men with bags of uniforms and semiautomatic weapons at their side.

At the time, diplomats in Skopje questioned the government's story, but it was not until the nationalist-led government lost elections in September 2002 and a new center-left administration came to power that the police began to investigate the shooting in earnest. The full extent of the state's involvement in the incident has only emerged in the last two weeks.

On May 4, state prosecutors charged three senior police commanders with the killings, with two other police officers and a businessman. Mr. Boskovski, who was voted out of office with his colleagues in September 2002, is wanted for questioning in connection with the attack, but the police say he has fled the country and is believed to be in Croatia.

The current government has also raised the question of whether the man who was prime minister at the time, Ljubco Georgievski, knew about the plan.

Speaking in the Macedonian Parliament in late April, Hari Kostov, who was interior minister then and has since become prime minister, asked Mr. Georgievski if he had given "the green light for the operation."

Mr. Georgievski did not respond on this occasion, but he and Mr. Boskovski have consistently denied any knowledge of the plot. Nevertheless, former members of their administration say the investigation has implicated the state at very high levels.

"It is monstrous, there is really no other explanation for it," said Dosta Dimovska, a former deputy prime minister in Mr. Georgievski's government and later chief of Macedonia's intelligence agency. "The damage will be difficult to repair."

A senior government adviser and former Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity said: "The state did it. The Republic of Macedonia did it. And we will have to pay the price."

In late 2001, after a six-month guerrilla war with ethnic Albanian rebels, relations between Macedonia's nationalist government and the outside world were at a low ebb. Diplomats, government officials and investigators here have suggested that the government hoped to use the post-Sept. 11 campaign against terror to give the government a free hand in its conflict with the mostly Muslim ethnic Albanians.

According to a recent briefing by an Interior Ministry official, after the first planning meeting in November 2001, police commanders contacted the chief of police in Delcevo, a town close to the border with Bulgaria. Delcevo is also the home town of Mr. Georgievski and a known center for human trafficking.

The official said the police chief was told to "find a group of Muslims with a specific physical description, who have to look like mujahedeen."

In a recent interview, that police chief, Vlatko Ristov, who was also a member of Mr. Georgievski's nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE, admitted contacting the trafficker responsible for finding the migrants..

"I only contacted the persons who transported them" across the border from Bulgaria, Mr. Ristov said. He said the group's journey to Skopje was organized by another human trafficker based in Skopje.

But later in the same interview, he denied any knowledge of the deal, and said reports of his involvement had been made by local criminals seeking to discredit him.

The migrants - six Pakistanis and one Indian - had hoped to make their way to Western Europe, when they were contacted by the traffickers, and offered the possibility of traveling to Greece, the Interior Ministry official said. The Pakistanis were later identified as Muhammed Riaz, Omar Farooq, Syed Bilal, Hussein Shah, Asif Javed, and Khalid Iqbal. The name of the Indian remains unknown.

They were brought across the border and housed in Delcevo for one night, after which they were driven to Skopje and taken to an apartment, where they were given food and clothing. The official could not say how long the men were kept in the apartment.

At the same time a special police unit, called the Lions, formed by and under the direct control of the interior minister, was instructed to train for an antiterrorist operation at their base in Katlanovo, a village close to Skopje.

"Only their general knew that they were not real terrorists," said the official.

In February 2002, Mr. Boskovski surprised one Western diplomat with claims about the presence of mujahedeen in areas affected by the previous year's conflict northwest of Skopje, something the diplomat said international cease-fire monitors in the region were unable to confirm.

At 2 a.m. on March 2, the official said, the seven Asian men were driven in a minivan to a vineyard on the outskirts of Skopje and left there. Once their driver left, four members of the Lions opened fire on the men with automatic weapons, killing all seven.

Within hours, Mr. Boskovski appeared outside the United States Embassy in Skopje accompanied by television camera crews, an armored personnel carrier and members of the Lions, where he announced the shooting and explained that the police had been monitoring the men, who were suspected of connections with Al Qaeda and ethnic Albanian rebels, to prevent them from carrying out attacks against the British, American and German Embassies.

In an apparently contradictory statement, he also said the shooting occurred when a routine police patrol had been ambushed.

Autopsies performed on the men as well as police photos suggested that all the shooting had come from the police side, and that the police had tried to stage the crime scene.

All seven bodies had multiple bullet wounds and in one case as many as 53, according to the Interior Ministry. Later, the police showed pictures of a Lada jeep with two bullet holes in it as proof that a gun battle had taken place.

One of the guns found on the men was new and had not been fired. In another case, the official said, a pistol was wedged into one of the men's jeans in a position that covered four bullets wounds, but the pistol itself was undamaged, suggesting it had been placed there after the man had been killed. The positions of the men, and their clothing, also suggested they had been dragged into place.

"It was not a professional job," said Mirjana Kontevska, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry.

Under pressure from Western diplomats, in the summer of 2002 Mr. Georgievski's government opened an inquiry into the shootings, but exonerated the police involved of any wrongdoing, a conclusion some diplomats here said suggested a cover-up. Another year and a half passed before the new government pressed charges.

A lawyer for relatives of the Pakistani men is now seeking damages from the Macedonian government.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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