SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonian police gunned down seven innocent immigrants, then claimed they were terrorists, in a killing staged to show they were participating in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, authorities said Friday.
Police spokeswoman Mirjana Konteska told reporters that six people, including three former police commanders, two special police officers and a businessman, have been charged by police with murder.
If convicted, they could be sentenced from 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 coldly 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 to the war on terror.”
Since breaking away from Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia has been eager to win U.S. political and economic support in its search for acceptance into the Western camp of nations.
Macedonia has been a close U.S. ally in the Balkans. It has staunchly supported the U.S.-led war on terrorism and sent troops to Iraq.
The so-called “Rastanski Lozja” action was carried out in March 2002 by special Macedonian police who claimed to have eliminated a terrorist group allegedly plotting to attack international embassies and representatives in Macedonia.
Konteska said that the seven Pakistani men were in fact illegal immigrants who were lured into Macedonia by promises that they would be transferred to Western Europe.
She refused to directly name the suspects.
Kontenska mentioned, however, that 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 enjoyed as a legislator. Officials said the committee had met earlier in the day following a request from 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 the alleged Pakistani terrorists from unidentified “American intelligence officers.”
Konteska however said a forensic and ballistic investigation confirmed the action was staged. She said the investigation was not finished and more suspects could be found.
At the time, senior police officials said the seven men were killed after a police patrol was ambushed. Police claimed that assault rifles, hand grenades and ammunition were found near a van used by the Pakistanis.
Konteska said the plan to set up the Pakistanis and kill them was made 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 three miles (5 kilometers) 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 U.S. Embassy released a statement that said U.S. personnel were “not aware of any indication that there was a specific threat” to the embassy.
A U.S. State Department official said on condition of anonymity that the United States had pressed for a inquiry and was pleased there would finally be one.
In apparent retaliation for the deaths, Macedonia’s 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-Qaida group and warned against “infidels.”
There was no comment from the U.S. Embassy on Friday. Pakistan does not have an embassy in Skopje.
Craig Ratcliff, spokesman for NATO in Macedonia, told the Associated Press Friday that the “international community at the time did not have a clear picture whether that was an anti-terrorist operation or something else.”
He said NATO was pleased about the government investigation, describing it as “very much a positive step.”