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Rights group blasts Macedonia police

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SKOPJE, Macedonia — A U.S.-based human rights group Wednesday accused Macedonian forces of torturing and killing ethnic Albanian civilians and burning their houses in a village near the capital during an August offensive that left 10 people dead.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch charged that Macedonian police shot and killed six civilians and burned at least 22 houses, sheds and stores during a house-to-house sweep in the ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten on Aug. 12. Indiscriminate shelling killed another three civilians and one more was fatally shot by government forces as he tried to flee, the report said.

"The Macedonian government must answer to the people of Ljuboten," Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. The group called for a probe by war crimes investigators.

Macedonian Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski denied there was a massacre of civilians in Ljuboten and said ethnic Albanian "terrorists" were killed in fighting. The government said the offensive was a response to a land-mine explosion that killed eight soldiers two days earlier.

Human Rights Watch said its evidence indicated "the attack on Ljuboten had no military justification and was carried out for purposes of revenge and reprisal."

Boskovski, who was singled out in the report, said Wednesday that he would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to clear his name.

"I want to end this speculation and these lies presented by this quasi-international organization," he said, accusing Human Rights Watch of insulting "my personal reputation, the reputation of the interior ministry and the police officers with the interior ministry."

A statement from Macedonian police unions published in newspapers Wednesday accused the rights group of "remaining deaf and mute" to claims of attacks against Macedonian authorities and civilians and "threats of liquidation of entire families."

"This organization persistently sees violation of human rights on one side and one side alone, that of the allegedly wronged Albanian minority," the statements read.

Government spokesman Antonio Milososki said Macedonian investigators found "no improper conduct" by security forced.

But New York-based Human Rights Watch said its investigators found no evidence of guerrillas in the village at the time of the offensive, and said Boskovski was in Ljuboten during the government sweep.

"It is deeply disturbing that the Minister of the Interior appears to have been so intimately involved in one of the worst abuses of the war," Andersen said.

One rebel leader, who calls himself Commander Sokoli, called what happened in Ljuboten a "pure violation of human rights" and said there were no rebels there at the time of the attack.

"This was only a fabricated excuse to get into the village ... the truth is that people were massacred in the most barbaric way," Sokoli told The Associated Press.

He said his men went into Ljuboten later to help bury the victims, and alleged that it was only one of many examples of human rights abuses by Macedonian troops.

In addition to the killings, Human Rights Watch also accused Macedonian forces of abusing many of the hundreds of ethnic Albanians who fled Ljuboten during the government sweep.

Police separated more than 100 men and boys from their wives and families and took them to police stations in the capital, Skopje, where some were beaten, the report said.

"Endemic police abuse is a potential spark that could re-ignite the conflict in Macedonia," Andersen said.

On Wednesday, the Skopje daily newspaper Vecer published what it said was an account by a Macedonian policeman who fought in Ljuboten.

"When we came under fire from one of the last houses in the village, one from my group was wounded," said the policeman, who was not named. "We spotted four terrorists running away, uphill, shooting at us. We shot back — it was as simple as that. There was no torture — they shot at us, we shot back ... we harassed no one."

The rebels launched their insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for the minority ethnic Albanians who make up a third of Macedonia's 2 million people.

Under a Western-backed peace plan, the rebels have agreed to surrender their weapons to NATO forces and Macedonia's parliament is expected to endorse constitutional changes that would boost rights for the ethnic Albanian minority.

On the Net:

Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org