Police in the Macedonian city of Bitola did not attempt to stop rioting crowds on Wednesday night, and some police officers actively participated in the violence.
"The anti-Albanian riots in Bitola present a dangerous escalation of the crisis in Macedonia," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "The local police must fulfill their responsibility to stop the violence, not exacerbate it."
Wednesday's anti-Albanian rioting broke out one day after five policemen, three of them from Bitola, were killed by insurgents of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) on Tuesday night outside the town of Tetovo, located 150 kilometers north of Bitola. Similar anti-Albanian riots broke out in the city in late April, when eight policemen, including four from Bitola, were killed in an NLA ambush near Tetovo. Bitola, located some 170 kilometers south of Skopje, is Macedonia's third largest city, and ethnic Albanians compromise about 15 percent of its population. There has been no NLA fighting in or near the city of Bitola.
Human Rights Watch visited fourteen ethnic Albanian homes that had been gutted by fire during Wednesday night's riots and received information about other burned homes as well as extensive damage to the Albanian commercial district. The targeted homes appeared to have been carefully selected and included the homes of prominent ethnic Albanian politicians such as the Deputy Health Minister and the wealthiest ethnic Albanians.
A village mosque was also vandalized by the rioters. Grave markers were broken, and several graves had been broken open. The windows of the mosque were broken, and rioters had set the carpets inside the mosque on fire but did not succeed in burning it down. On the exterior wall of the mosque, rioters had painted several swastikas and written "Death to the Shiptars." The term "Shiptar" is an ethnic slur when used by non-Albanians.
The available evidence strongly suggests that the Bitola police did not take any actions to stop the anti-Albanian attacks and that a significant number of Bitola police officers, in and out of uniform, took part in the rioting. The police took no apparent action to enforce the 10 p.m. curfew it had announced for the town, and the rioting continued until after 1 a.m., according to official police statements. The rioting crowds claimed to be revenging the deaths of Bitola police officers that were ambushed near Tetovo.
Some of the witnesses reported that Bitola police officers had taken an active part in the rioting. According to Zini K. (see testimony below), at least one uniformed police officer and one uniformed soldier took part in the destruction and burning of his restaurant. According to Hamdi S., police officers stopped him from attempting to put out the fire to his home, and were shouting "Burn, burn for Macedonia."
Human Rights Watch called on the Macedonian Ministry of Interior to carry out an immediate investigation into the conduct of the Bitola police during the riots and urged the international community to assist and participate in the investigation.
"The conduct of the Bitola police in yesterday's riots is deeply worrying," said Cartner. "The Interior Ministry and the international community need to act now to prevent a further deterioration in police discipline."
Anti-Albanian sentiment in Bitola is rapidly growing into a campaign by extremists to rid Bitola of its ethnic Albanian population. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that the rioters had yelled slogans including "Death to Albanians," "Pure Bitola," "Albanians Out of Bitola," "Get Out Albanians," and other such statements. The rioters told some of the ethnic Albanians that they had a week to get out of town before being targeted again. Many ethnic Albanians have fled their homes in Bitola in the aftermath of Wednesday's riot because they are afraid of further attacks.
"Bitola's ethnic Albanians are scared to death of what could happen next," said Cartner. "Urgent action is required to protect this vulnerable population from further attacks."
The rioting in Bitola started at about 8 p.m. in the Albanian shopping and restaurant district of the town. Sixty-four-year-old Zini K. was in his restaurant when the crowds attacked: "They entered inside [the restaurant], destroyed the place and put it on fire. Then they went to another one and they burned it as well. I had a motorbike, and they put it inside the restaurant and burned it." Zini K. managed to put out the fire, but returned the next day to find his restaurant looted and burned to the ground: "After I left, they came back to the restaurant and burned it again. It is now completely burned. Everything was looted -- our kitchen tools, tables, dishes, radio, telephone -- there is nothing left."
Zini K. then went home to Czar Samuel Street and was again faced with a very large mob shortly after 10 p.m. The mob, after damaging a mosque at the end of the street, proceeded carefully to select Albanian homes on the street and burned them down:
They had burned down my nephew's home and another relative's home. Our steel door was locked. They broke it down and started yelling, "Where are you Shiptar, Where are you Shiptar." I stepped back inside and when they saw me retreat they started throwing flames at the house. They also started burning the store in front. Then they went down a little lower and began burning another house.
Hamdi S., aged forty-two, was at home on the same street with his wife and three children when the mob approached:
At around 10:20 p.m., the lights in the houses suddenly went out. Then we heard a very big noise. First we could hear shooting. I said to my wife that they must have started burning the houses. When I went out I saw that my uncle's house was burning. After they burned his house, they came to my house. I took out my children, my eleven-year-old daughter first. At that moment, the first [Molotov] cocktail was thrown and I told my boys and my wife to run away.
The crowd started shouting, "You have one week to leave Bitola, and if you don't go to Albania we will kill you, we will make you disappear from this world." They were behaving so brutally. They were mostly from eighteen to fifty years old, no women. There were about 800 to 1,000 people in the street; the whole street from my house to the mosque was filled with people.... They were yelling "Death to the Albanians, Go to Albania" and they were also using dirty curses.
The crowd also beat some ethnic Albanians. Among those beaten was a fifty-year-old former local leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) and his forty-seven-year-old wife. A witness who saw the beating described what he witnessed:
They broke down the fence and entered inside. First five people entered inside. They were breaking the tables inside, ripping up papers and pouring something out of a bottle. One of them set the home alight. A man and woman were on the top floor of the house when it started burning. The two were taken out of the house. They were taken into the basement and then I couldn't see them anymore. After fifteen or twenty minutes, they came back outside. They were covered with blood. The Macedonians were slapping their faces.
The beating victims had fled Bitola, but other neighbors confirmed the beatings to Human Rights Watch.