SKOPJE, Macedonia – Police arrested 20 radical Islamists for the murder of five ethnic Macedonian fishermen in an early morning raid Tuesday, authorities said. The killing last month fueled tension in the tiny Balkan country between majority Macedonians and the mostly Muslim Albanian minority.
The suspects have been charged with terrorism, Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska said. She did not specify whether they all belonged to the same ethnic group, saying simply that they were all Macedonian citizens.
The victims were not directly connected with the suspects, Jankuloska told reporters.
"The intention of this crime was to create a sense of insecurity and fear among the general population," she said.
Tensions between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians have simmered since the end of an armed rebellion in 2001, when ethnic Albanian rebels fought Macedonian government forces for about eight months, seeking greater rights for their community. The conflict left 80 people dead, and ended with the intervention of NATO troops.
Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia's population of 2.1 million. Most Macedonians are Christian Orthodox.
About 800 police were involved in Tuesday's operation, called "Monster," raiding 26 houses around the Macedonian capital of Skopje and seizing weapons, bullet proof vests and Islamic literature, Jankuloska said.
All of the suspects had fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan, she said.
The suspects were followers "of radical Islam, which is generally a danger for Christianity," she said. "They all have the capacity to commit such a horrible act."
She did not offer more details, saying the investigation is not yet complete.
Police posted a video of armed policemen raiding a house, arresting at least two suspects, one of them sprawled on the floor, and displaying a number of cellphones and SIM cards.
The title of the video describes the arrested as "Wahhabis," a fundamentalist branch of Islam.
The five fishermen, all but one in their 20s, were found dead, shot with at least three different firearms, north of Skopje on April 13.
Rumors spread quickly that the killings were ethnic-related, forcing authorities to appeal for calm.