Macedonian police (file)
Macedonian police (file) Reuters

Macedonian police said Thursday they arrested nine people, including an imam believed to be the group's leader, who are suspected of recruiting or fighting for Islamist groups in the Middle East.

Authorities were also searching for 27 more people, the Interior Minister Mitko Chavkov told reporters.

"The goal of the police operation was to identify people who recruit Macedonian jihadists to go and fight on fronts in the Middle East, as well as people who have come back from war or are still fighting there," the minister said.

Among the suspects arrested in operations on Wednesday and Thursday is Rexhep Memishi, imam from a mosque in the capital Skopje, believed to be the group's leader, Chavkov added.

The group members, aged between 19 and 49, will be charged with participating in foreign armies and paramilitary groups, police said.

According to Macedonia's criminal code, joining in conflicts abroad as well as recruiting citizens to fight in foreign conflicts is punishable by five years in jail.

"We know that these people possess false passports and that they were going through Turkey to (battle) fronts," Chavkov said, adding that the probe has yet to find out which group the suspects were linked to.

"Police so far have no information that these persons have planned terrorist attacks in Macedonia," the minister said.

Police raided a number of locations in Skopje and in four more northeastern Macedonian towns, seizing computers, mobile telephone cards and money.

According to Macedonian police, some 130 Macedonian citizens have fought or are still fighting in Syria or other Middle East countries.

AFP contributed to this report.

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