DEBAR, Macedonia - Three Muslim brothers who allegedly helped plot to kill soldiers at a U.S. Army base have roots in one of Europe's most pro-American corners, a region that remains grateful to the United States for ending the Kosovo war.
Dritan Duka, 28; Shain Duka, 26, and Eljvir Duka, 23, who were arrested in New Jersey in what U.S. authorities said was a bungled scheme to blow up and gun down soldiers at Fort Dix, were born in Debar, a remote town on Macedonia's rugged border with Serbia's Kosovo province.
Relatives in the ethnic Albanian town of 15,000 said they had not seen the brothers in more than two decades, but expressed disbelief yesterday that the three would attack the United States.
"We all have been supporters of America. We were always thankful to America for its support during the wars in Kosovo and Macedonia," said a cousin, Elez Duka, 29. "These are simple, ordinary people, and they've got nothing to do with terrorism. I expect their release and I expect an apology," he said, waving his hands. "I see injustice."
His indignation captured the mood among Slavic Muslims in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, places that have repeatedly expressed gratitude to the United States for intervening in the 1998-99 Kosovo war and a 2001 ethnic conflict that pushed Macedonia to the brink of civil war. Albania was among the first countries to answer Washington's call for troops to help support U.S.-led military offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, which many expect to gain independence from Serbia later this year, U.S. flags are commonplace. The main avenue is Bill Clinton Boulevard, renamed to honor the president who ordered air strikes that halted former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's brutal crackdown in the province.
In Debar, people struggled to reconcile the generally pro-American feelings with the indictment of the three brothers and a fourth ethnic Albanian suspect, Agron Abdullahu, 24.
Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku wrote a letter to the U.S. mission in Pristina yesterday expressing the "extraordinary feeling that Kosovo's people have for the U.S." Ceku also denounced what he called "the disgusting idea" that Albanians could be involved in an attack "against a nation that has been very generous so far."
The Duka brothers' grandmother, Naze Duka, was visibly upset as word of their arrests spread through the modest two-story brick houses in Debar, about 110 miles southwest of the Macedonian capital, Skopje.
"America is good - you work, you earn money there," the 88-year-old woman said. "I have no idea where this all came from. How did this happen? I don't believe that my kids would do anything like that. I know my kids - they were committed to supporting their families, their house."
Elez Duka said their father had taken the family to the United States via Italy in 1986 or 1987. U.S. officials say the brothers are here illegally. The cousin said they had not been back to Kosovo because they didn't have the necessary papers for returning to America.
He said the brothers occasionally phoned. Over the last two years, Elez Duka said, his cousins told him they had grown long beards and had become more devoted to Islam, but he insisted they were incapable of involvement in a terrorist plot.
"They live in America and grew up in the American culture. How can you say they are anti-American?" he said.
Few ethnic Albanians embrace militant Islam. Most are moderate or secular. Even those who described themselves as devout Muslims denounced the alleged plot.
"They must have been crazy. They shouldn't dare throw a stone at America," said Rrahmi Duka, 70, a distant relative of the brothers. "Who saved us? America."