By Die Morina and Erjone Popova
Kosovo and Macedonia’s prime ministers agreed to push for an international investigation into a deadly 2015 shootout with police in Kumanovo, for which 16 Kosovo citizens have been jailed for terrorism.
During a visit to Pristina on Tuesday, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his counterpart, Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj, agreed to push for an international investigation into the Kumanovo shootout case, which threatens to damage otherwise good bilateral relations.
“This is a sensitive issue that has not been provoked by Haradinaj, nor by Zaev. We agreed to have an international investigation aiming to give the right answers to citizens. This issue should not be a barrier between the two countries,” Zaev told a joint press conference with Haradinaj.
The two-day shootout between ethnic Albanian gunmen and the security forces in the northern Macedonia town of Kumanovo in May 2015 left 18 people dead, including eight police officers.
Life sentences were given to seven out of the 37 defendants in the case in November, sparking outrage and protests in Kosovo. The rest of the defendants mostly got long jail terms.
Sixteen of the defendants are originally from Kosovo and are former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Their defence claimed that they were victims of a political set-up and that their intention had not been to cause violence, but to send a message about ethnic Albanian rights in Macedonia.
“An international investigation would help the full disclosure of the truth,” Haradinaj said.
The meeting between the two prime ministers came several weeks after Haradinaj’s government decided to give 219,000 euros to cover the expenses of family members of those convicted of involvement in the shootout or killed during the battle.
The decision was met with discontent by the Macedonian government.
The defendants were found guilty of terrorism, either for participating in the shootout with Macedonian security forces or assisting the gunmen.
The trial however did not bring answers to the many controversies surrounding the case.
Zaev’s Social Democrats, who came to power this May after a long political crisis in Macedonia, raised suspicions after the Kumanovo shootout that it might have a political background that involved high-ranking officials of the VMRO DPMNE party, which was in power at the time.
The Social Democrats and many other observers suspected that the VMRO DPMNE government might have staged the incident to cause inter-ethnic conflict that would divert attention from the mass illegal wiretapping and corruption scandals they were facing.
The Macedonian Prime Minister and VMRO DPMNE leader at the time, Nikola Gruevski, dismissed such suggestions as nonsense.
After this year’s change in power in Macedonia, a special group of experts working on judicial reforms was set up.
It is currently mulling a special law that would allow retrials of the Kumanovo case and other cases in which interference by the former VMRO DPMNE-led government, which held power for 11 years, is suspected.