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Bodies of 5 Macedonians found near capital

SKOPJE, Macedonia – Macedonian officials tried to quash speculation Friday the shooting deaths of five people near the capital were ethnic-related killings.

Tensions have been simmering 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.

“I ask the media not to make any speculation that (the crime) is connected with interethnic issues ... There is no evidence of that,” police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said.

The five victims were ethnic Macedonians, mostly young fisherman. Riot police deployed on a highway leading to the village as dozens of angry youths blocked the road, according to AP photographs. A group among the mob smashed the windows of a vehicle belonging to a reporter for private TV station “24 News” and threw stones at passing buses, the channel reported.

President Gjorge Ivanov urged “restraint by all” and called for a quick investigation, a sentiment echoed by a local official.

“I appeal to authorities to ... find the culprits of this horrible murder in order for all speculation to be avoided,” Petar Latinovski, the mayor of Butel, the jurisdiction where the killings occurred.

The victims were found by a local fisherman late Thursday near an artificial lake just north of the capital, Skopje, Kotevski said. Four of the victims were in their 20s, and the fifth was in his 40s.

Police sealed off the area and the bodies were being examined by forensic experts. Authorities haven’t disclosed any information about possible suspects or motives.

There were two flare-ups of violence this year, the last one in March, with clashes between gangs of Albanian and ethnic Macedonian youths resulting in dozens of injuries. During several days of rioting, youths attacked buses and used iron bars, knives and baseball bats in street fights.

Ethnic Albanians, who are mostly Muslim, make up a quarter of Macedonia’s population of 2.1 million people in a country that is majority Orthodox Christian.