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An armed group attacked special forces police Saturday in a town in northern Macedonia in a clash that killed five police officers and injured more than 30, officials said, amid a political crisis that has raised concern about the stability of the Balkan nation.
Interior minister Gordana Jankulovska told reporters late Saturday that the police casualties occurred during a sweep operation in Diva Naselba, a neighborhood in western Kumanovo. Police had come under attack from automatic guns and bombs.
A weeping Jankulovska described the five slain police officers as "heroes who gave their lives today for the Republic of Macedonia."
She added that the "terrorist group," which had entered Macedonia from an unspecified neighboring country, planned to "use the current political situation to perform attacks on state institutions."
Jankulovska said more than 20 members of the armed group had surrendered, but added that the police operation is still ongoing because other attackers have refused to give up. Jankulovska said some of the attackers had been killed, without specifying the number. She was not able immediately able to confirm whether there were any civilian casualties.
Saturday's clashes come as Macedonia is grappling with its deepest political crisis since its independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991. The government and the opposition have accused each other of planning to destabilize the country to take or preserve power, and some analysts fear leaders on both sides are ready to provoke ethnic clashes as leverage.
Kumanovo is an ethnically mixed town located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of the capital Skopje, near the border with Kosovo and Serbia. The region was the center of hostilities between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces during the ethnic conflict in 2001.
Ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people, took up arms in 2001 demanding more rights. The conflict ended after six months with a western-brokered peace deal that granted more rights to the minority group.