Thousands of Kosovars mourn Albanian militants killed in Macedonia

Slideshow ( 8 images )

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Thousands of people turned out in Kosovo’s capital on Tuesday to pay their respects to eight ethnic Albanian militants killed earlier this month in neighboring Macedonia, whose government labeled them as terrorists.

Eight Macedonian policemen and 10 Albanian militants, nine of them from Kosovo, were killed in a day-long battle in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo on May 9. It was the country’s most serious violence since Western diplomacy pulled it back from the brink of civil war in 2001.

Eight of the Kosovo militants were buried at Pristina’s Martyrs’ cemetery. Many mourners wore the black and camouflage uniforms of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought Serb forces in a 1998-99 war that led to the province breaking away from Serbia and later declaring independence.

The ceremony was organized by the families and Kosovo war veterans’ associations. The Kosovo government has condemned the incidents in Macedonia and asked for an independent investigation.

“I don’t know what happened in Kumanovo but I am here to pay respect to my war comrades,” said Bashkim Llugiqi, 38, wearing a camouflage uniform with KLA insignia.

Little is known about the Kumanovo group’s intentions, but security officials say the governments in Kosovo and Macedonia had both long known about its existence and its intention to commit violent acts.

The Macedonian government has said police wiped out “one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Balkans”, bent on attacking police stations, shopping malls and sports events.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Mark Trevelyan