SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 2 (UPI) -- Macedonian police shot dead seven suspected Islamic militants Saturday in the worst violence since the end of an ethnic-Albanian guerrilla insurgency last year.
The interior ministry said all those killed were foreigners, most likely Pakistanis, who had been planning attacks on diplomatic missions in Macedonia's capital Skopje.
"They planned attacks on important buildings and foreign diplomats most probably from the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom -- those that were involved in the fight against global terrorism," said Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski.
No police were wounded when they repulsed the pre-dawn ambush, which took place about seven miles north of the capital, near the village of Ljuboten, the scene of heavy fighting last year.
Boskovski said security forces had been prepared for the ambush after learning of the presence of an Islamic terrorist group in the country following the recent arrest in Skopje of two Jordanians and two Bosnians.
Heightened security measures were quickly put into effect at the U.S. embassy Saturday, including the deployment of a police armored personnel carrier. However, by early evening those forces had been withdrawn and a representative of the embassy said no specific threat had been received.
Local television showed a cache of arms police seized from the van the gunmen were driving, including assault rifles, hand grenades and mortar shells. The reports also quoted police officials as saying that uniforms of the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army were found in the van the gunmen were driving.
Macedonian officials accused the NLA of fighting side-by-side with foreign mujahedin forces during last year's ethnic conflict, but the allegations were never substantiated. Macedonia routinely refers to the NLA as a terrorist organization, and following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, has tried to link the group to al Qaida, Osama bin Laden's international terrorist network.
The arrests 12 days ago of the two Jordanians and the two Bosnians were not initially made public, but now appear to be the first clear case of Muslim foreigners linked to terrorism in Macedonia.
The NLA led last year's ethnic-Albanian insurgency, but have consistently denied receiving support from Muslim radicals. The organization, with close links to the Kosovo Liberation Army, is now officially disbanded, following its surrender of 4,000 weapons to a NATO peacekeeping force last fall.
None of those killed Saturday were ethnic Albanians, said Refet Elmazi, deputy interior minister and himself an ethnic Albanian. An investigation into the identity of the attackers was continuing, but he said that the medical examiner had preliminarily determined that none of the seven were from Macedonia.
Macedonia's Albanians make up over a quarter of the population and are overwhelmingly Muslims, while ethnic Macedonians are mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians.
Following the signing of a peace agreement last August granting ethnic Albanians greater political power, the country has been moving haltingly back to stability.
Key parts of the peace deal have already been enacted into law, though an amnesty for the former guerrilla fighters is still pending. Police have regained nominal control of about half the territory seized by the NLA, under a confidence-building program led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and backed up by a small NATO force.
However, Albanian attacks on Macedonian homes and churches have continued in recent months, and tensions have risen after security forces arrested a number of former insurgents on charges of illegal weapons possession.