The Associated Press
SKOPJE, Macedonia: Police search teams chased a Kosovo prison fugitive and his criminal gang on Wednesday, killing six gang members and arresting 12 others in northwestern Macedonia, police said.
The search operation led to gun battles in ethnic Albanian villages near Macedonia's volatile border with Kosovo, but the main target of the operation — fugitive Lirim Jakupi — was still at large.
Special police officers searched houses and seized weapons, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic weapons, in village of Brodec, some 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of the capital, Skopje.
At least 10 nearby villages were cordoned off as police searched door-to-door. Several of the men arrested had been disguised as women, police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said.
Police arrested 12 suspected gang members and found the bodies of six others, Kotevski said, but added that more might have been have been killed or wounded in the gunbattles. He did not confirm earlier media reports that eight people had been killed.
The identities of the men killed were not yet known, but Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska said no bystanders or police were among the dead.
Police said they were trying to capture the group of gunmen led by Jakupi, who was still at large after escaping from Kosovo's Dubrava prison two months ago.
Jakupi, nicknamed the "Nazi," was a member of the outlawed Albanian National Army, and was wanted in Macedonia and Serbia for alleged participation in attacks in both countries.
In 2004 he was arrested in Skopje on suspicion of murdering a policeman and planting bomb outside a police station, but he escaped custody while awaiting trial. He was arrested by U.N. forces in Kosovo, and jailed on terrorism charges.
Gunfire was first reported Wednesday in Brodec, before the fighting moved into an open area, according to private news agency Makfax.
The mountainous area, close to the border with Kosovo, was also the center of an uprising by ethnic Albanian armed rebels in 2001, which was put down by government forces after several months.
An opposition party official in Tetovo condemned the police raid, which he said threatened area peace.
"With these actions, whatever freedom and peace we had as Macedonians will fade," Xhevat Ademi said. He also claimed several villagers had been injured in the raids.
Last week, another Kosovo prison fugitive was shot dead in the same region. Police denied involvement, saying Xhavid Morina had been killed in a skirmish between rival criminal gangs.
Macedonia is currently courting membership in both NATO and the European Union and is keen to project an image of stability.