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Macedonia says slayings were a setup

Police allegedly killed 7 to show antiterror effort

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Macedonian police gunned down seven innocent immigrants, then contended that they were terrorists, in a killing staged to show they were participating in the US-led campaign against terrorism, authorities said yesterday.

Police spokeswoman Mirjana Konteska told reporters that six people -- three former police commanders, two special police officers, and a businessman -- have been charged with murder in the 2002 killings.

If convicted, they face a sentence of 10 years to life in prison.

''That was an act of a sick mind," Konteska said after a two-year investigation. ''They . . . ordered the brutal murder of the seven Pakistani men."

She described a meticulous plan to promote Macedonia as a player in the fight against global terrorism that involved smuggling the Pakistanis into Macedonia from Bulgaria, housing them, and then gunning them down.

The killings, she added, were part of an attempt to ''present themselves as participants in the war against terrorism and demonstrate Macedonia's commitment."

Since breaking away from Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia has been eager to win US political and economic support in its search for acceptance by Western nations.

Macedonia has been a close US ally in the Balkans. It has staunchly supported the US-led war on terrorism and sent troops to Iraq.

The ''Rastanski Lozja" action was carried out in March 2002 by special Macedonian police who said they eliminated a terrorist group plotting to attack international embassies and representatives in Macedonia.

Konteska said the seven Pakistanis were illegal immigrants lured into Macedonia by promises that they would be transferred to Western Europe.

She refused to name the suspects.

Konteska said police Generals Goran Stojkov and Boban Utkovski and senior police official Aleksandar Cvetkovski were among those allegedly involved.

She also named former interior minister Ljube Boskovski, who is a Parliament deputy, in connection with the shootings.

Shortly after the announcement, a parliamentary committee revoked the immunity from prosecution that Boskovski received as a legislator. Officials said the committee had met earlier in the day following a request from the judge heading the inquiry.

Boskovski, interior minister under the former nationalist government, headed the police during Macedonia's 2001 ethnic conflict. He was minister when the Pakistanis were killed.

He denied the allegations, telling reporters that he and his associates received a tip about Pakistani terrorists from unidentified ''American intelligence officers."

Konteska, however, said a forensic and ballistic investigation confirmed that the action was staged. She said the investigation was not finished, and more suspects might be found.

At the time, senior police officials said the seven men were killed after a police patrol was ambushed. Police contended that assault rifles, hand grenades, and ammunition were found near a van used by the Pakistanis.

Konteska said the plan was devised by top police officials in February 2002, when the seven men were brought into the country from Bulgaria and housed in Skopje, the capital.

On March 3, they were taken by police to Rastanski Lozja, about 3 miles northeast of Skopje, and gunned down by special police, Konteska said.

''They lost their lives in a staged murder," said Konteska.

After the killings, the US Embassy released a statement that said American personnel were ''not aware of any . . . specific threat" to the embassy.

In apparent retaliation for the deaths, the Macedonia Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, was rocked by a bomb blast on Dec 5, 2002.

Pakistani investigators found three bodies inside -- two men and a woman -- each with their hands and feet bound and their throats slit. Messages scrawled on a wall referred to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and warned against ''infidels."

There was no comment from the US Embassy yesterday. Pakistan does not have an embassy in Skopje.

Craig Ratcliff, spokesman for NATO in Macedonia, said yesterday that the ''international community at the time did not have a clear picture whether that was an antiterrorist operation or something else."

He said NATO was pleased about the government investigation, describing it as ''very much a positive step."

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