Ethnic Albanian gunmen in Macedonia escaped after releasing five Macedonian hostages Saturday. The kidnapping set off a massive security operation and raised fears of renewed ethnic fighting in the former Yugoslav republic. The release came after more than a day of intense negotiations.
A Macedonian Interior Ministry spokesman told reporters that the five hostages were released by ethnic Albanian fighters early Saturday, unharmed and in good health.
Western diplomatic source said there was no police action and the kidnappers managed to escape.
The freed hostages reportedly included a senior advisor to the national bank governor.
Interior Minister Ljube Boskoski suggested the release came after International Red Cross officials joined efforts late Friday to negotiate with the gunmen.
The kidnappers took eight hostages from a bus near Gostivar, some 60 kilometers west of Skopje, on Thursday. They later released three people, including two ethnic Albanians.
A NATO official said the kidnappers had threatened to kill the remaining hostages unless authorities released three ethnic Albanians arrested earlier in the week on charges of killing two Macedonian policemen. However the ultimatum passed without executions Friday.
Tensions remained high throughout the standoff as Macedonian security forces backed by armored vehicles surrounded the ethnic Albanian village of Zerovjane, where the hostages were being held.
As negotiations continued, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urged Macedonia to remain calm and appealed to the gunmen to release the hostages unconditionally.
Western diplomats feared that the incident could threaten Macedonia's first parliamentary elections since ethnic Albanian fighters started an uprising early last year.
It also threatened a Western-backed peace agreement giving the country's 600,000 ethnic Albanians in Macedonia more political and cultural rights.