Three Muslim brothers who allegedly helped plot to kill soldiers at a U.S. Army base have roots in one of Europe's most pro-American corners — a region that remains grateful to the United States for ending the Kosovo war.
Dritan Duka, 28, Shain Duka, 26, and Eljvir Duka, 23, who were arrested in New Jersey this week in what U.S. authorities said was a bungled scheme to blow up and gun down soldiers at Fort Dix, were born in Debar, a remote town on Macedonia's rugged border with Serbia's Kosovo province.
Relatives in the ethnic Albanian-populated town of 15,000 said they had not seen the brothers in more than two decades, but expressed disbelief Wednesday that the three would attack the United States.
"We all have been supporters of America. We were always thankful to America for its support during the wars in Kosovo and Macedonia," a cousin, Elez Duka, 29, told The Associated Press.
"These are simple, ordinary people and they've got nothing to do with terrorism. I expect their release and I expect an apology," he said, waving his hands. "I see injustice. These are ridiculous charges."
His indignation captured the mood among Slavic Muslims in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania — places that have repeatedly expressed gratitude to the United States for intervening in the 1998-99 Kosovo war and a 2001 ethnic conflict that pushed Macedonia to the brink of civil war.
Albania was among the first countries to answer Washington's call for troops to help support U.S.-led military offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bill Clinton Boulevard
In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, which many expect to gain independence from Serbia later this year, U.S. flags are commonplace. The main avenue is Bill Clinton Boulevard, renamed to honor the president who ordered airstrikes that halted former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's brutal crackdown in the province.
Like many Europeans, ethnic Albanians staged a big demonstration after the U.S. led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but theirs was a pro-America rally, not an anti-war protest.
In and out of Debar, people struggled to reconcile those feelings with the indictment of the three brothers and a fourth ethnic Albanian suspect, Agron Abdullahu, 24. Two other men also were arrested: Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22, a Palestinian born in Jordan, and Serdar Tatar, 23, born in Turkey.
It was unclear whether Abdullahu also came from Debar, but U.S. authorities said he served as a sniper during the Kosovo war, which pitted ethnic Albanian separatists against Serbian troops loyal to Milosevic.
U.S. authorities have not given details of the alleged plot, or said if a date had been set for an attack. They said only that the accused were training and buying weapons.
Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku wrote a letter to the U.S. mission in Pristina on Wednesday expressing the "extraordinary feeling that Kosovo's people have for the U.S." Ceku also denounced what he called "the disgusting idea" that Albanians could be involved in an attack "against a nation that has been very generous so far."
The Duka brothers' grandmother, Naze Duka, was visibly upset as word of their arrests spread through the modest two-story brick houses in Debar, about 110 miles southwest of the Macedonian capital, Skopje.
"America is good — you work, you earn money there," the 88-year-old said. "I have no idea where this all came from. How did this happen?"
Family went to U.S. in 1980s
Elez Duka, the brothers' cousin, said their father took the family to the U.S. via Italy in 1986 or 1987.
American officials say the brothers were in the U.S. illegally. The cousin said they had not been back because they didn't have the necessary papers for returning to the U.S.
He said the brothers occasionally phoned. Over the past two years, Elez Duka said, his cousins told him they had grown long beards and had become more devoted to Islam, but he insisted they were incapable of involvement in a terrorist plot.
"They live in America and grew up in the American culture. How can you say they are anti-American? These accusations are totally unfounded," he said.
Few ethnic Albanians embrace militant Islam. Most are moderate or secular.
Even those in Debar who described themselves as devout Muslims denounced the Fort Dix plot.
"They must have been crazy. They shouldn't dare throw a stone at America," said Rrahmi Duka, 70, a distant relative of the brothers, selling beads and Muslim books in Debar's main square as a loudspeaker blared prayers.
"Who saved us? America," he said. "We are in America's hands."