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Macedonia PM wins election in shadow of violence

1/06/2008 - 22:58

By Kole Casule

SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonian Prime Minister NikolaGruevski claimed victory in Sunday's parliamentary election, avote marred by alleged fraud and shootings that could cloud thecountry's European Union ambitions.

The violence, limited to ethnic Albanian areas, highlightedthe rivalry between the parties vying for the vote of a 25percent Albanian minority. One person was shot dead, nine werewounded and voting stopped in one town after a gun battle.

"In most parts the vote was fair and democratic, but sadlyin one part there were irregularities," Gruevski said.

"I will do everything in my power to have a re-run there soeach and every MP is elected fairly."

He said his conservative VMRO-DPMNE party was expecting tohave 60 deputies in the 120-seat assembly, over a third morethan it won in the last election in 2006.

The figures partly vindicate Gruevski's controversialdecision to call an election shortly after Greece blockedMacedonia's NATO invitation in April, betting that nationalistindignation over the snub would strengthen his hand.

Athens says Macedonia must change its name, which it shareswith a neighbouring Greek province, or can never enter the EUand NATO.

But observers say Gruevski failed to come down hard onviolence among rival Albanian parties and misjudged the risk ofunrest, ultimately harming the image of a country desperate toconvince the EU it is mature enough for membership talks.

The election commission noted instances of suspected fraudsuch as broken or missing ballot boxes. Two of its officials inthe ethnic Albanian Tetovo area were briefly detained by anunknown armed group before being rescued unharmed by police.

It is the worst violence since the end of a 2001 rebellion,when all-out ethnic war was averted by the West using the lureof NATO and the EU to get Albanian guerrillas to disarm.

DANGER OF CRISIS

The ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI)blamed the rival Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) and thepolice for "provocations, violence and psychological terror"and demanded a repeat vote in the troubled areas.

"That is the only way for Macedonia to avoid the danger ofa political crisis," DUI official Izet Mexhiti told Reuters.

The two parties have been on bad terms since 2006, when theDUI, which won most of the Albanian votes, was left out of acoalition government in favour of the DPA.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the United Statesembassy in Skopje both issued statements expressing concern andcalling for restraint. Before the vote, Brussels had said theelection is a test Macedonia must pass to start EUnegotiations.

The West is worried by any signs of instability in theBalkans so soon after the February secession of Kosovo's ethnicAlbanians from Serbia, the latest shudder in a region tornapart by the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The violence on voting day began soon after polls opened.

Scuffles broke out in several Albanian areas and a smallexplosive device was thrown at an empty cafe. Near Skopje,voting was stopped in the town of Aracinovo after a gun battle.

Police said officers went to the town after local monitorsreported the arrival of men with machine guns. They came underfire and retaliated, killing one gunman and injuring twoothers.

But the DUI said the incident was initiated byplain-clothes police, which stopped a convoy and startedshooting.

In Skopje's Cair neighbourhood, another shooting took placeoutside a polling station. One DUI official was in criticalcondition and five other people were wounded, police said.

At least 10 people have been arrested in connection withthe violence. They included Agim Krasniqi, a commander of theguerrilla Albanian National Army in the 2001 rebellion whoremained active after a peace deal was reached.

(additional reporting by Benet Koleka; Writing by EllieTzortzi; editing by Mary Gabriel)


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