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Skopje returns nine bodies from Kumanovo clashes to Kosovo

Macedonia has handed over to Kosovo the bodies of nine ethnic-Albanian gunmen killed in clashes with police earlier this month. The shoot-out was the worst unrest in the former Yugoslav republic in more than a decade.

Local media reported that the procession carrying nine metal coffins was honored in silence by hundreds of Kosovars holding national flags as the remains crossed into the country at a border crossing on Friday.

The head of the Kosovo's institute of medical forensics told reporters in the capital, Pristina, that the return of the bodies had been made possible after relatives had traveled to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, to identify them.

Kosovo public prosecutor Ali Rexha was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying that he was considering complying with a request that he order that autopsies be conducted on the remains, despite the fact that this had already been done by the Macedonian authorities.

The nine, who were branded "terrorists" by the Macedonian government, were killed in clashes with security forces in the town of Kumanovo, a mostly ethnic-Albanian town around 40 kilometers (26 miles) north of Skopje, two weeks ago.

A total of

18 people, including nine police officers, were killed in the shootout,

which broke out when security forces raided a location in the town seeking to arrest members of what they described as an ethnic Albanian "terrorist group" that they believed were planning to attack Macedonian state institutions.

Following the shootout, police arrested 30 alleged gunmen of ethnic Albanian origin, most of whom are from Kosovo.

All 30 are facing terrorism charges.

The violence was the worst Macedonia has experienced since a brief 2001 conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and the government.

Deep political crisis

The clashes came in the midst of an ongoing political crisis, in which the center-left opposition has accused

conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski

of wiretapping the conversations of around 20,000 people. The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, claiming the recordings were the work of foreign agents. The government has also accused opposition leader Zoran Zaev - who first announced the alleged wiretapping - of espionage and attempting to "destabilize" the country.

pfd/msh (AFP, AP, dpa)

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