One dead in Macedonia election violence
Monday, 02 June 2008

REUTERS, SKOPJE - Macedonia's parliamentary election descended into chaos on Sunday after one person was killed and several wounded in shootings in ethnic Albanian areas and voting was halted in one town after a gun battle.

The poll is seen as a test of the nation's political maturity after campaign violence raised fears that slow progress toward European Union membership could be further delayed.

The state news agency MIA reported scuffles in several Albanian areas and a small explosive device thrown at an empty cafe, while just east of the capital Skopje, voting was halted in the town of Aracinovo after a gun battle.

A police source said officers had chased an unknown armed group until they came under fire in Aracinovo. Police retaliated and injured one of the gunmen.

An official from the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) party, Shefik Duraku, disputed the police account, saying he was part of a convoy transporting ballot boxes and voting material when they were stopped by plain-clothes police in six cars.

"They stopped our convoy and shot one round in the air, it was chaos, we got out from the cars and tried to flee," Duraku told Reuters. One person from his group had died from his injuries and two others were lightly wounded.

A dozen police vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, were stationed a few kilometres from Aracinovo.

Closer to the town, 200 ethnic Albanians used cars parked in the middle of a street to set up a blockade.

In Skopje's Cair neighborhood, another shooting took place in the courtyard of a school serving as a polling station.

"We were attacked," said Izet Mexhiti, a DUI official, who blamed activists of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA).


The two parties are bitter rivals for the Albanian vote and have been on bad terms since 2006, when the DUI, which won most of the Albanian votes, was left out of a coalition government in favor of the DPA.

Mexhiti said a local DUI official had been wounded in the stomach and was treated in hospital. Two passers-by were wounded, he said, adding that his party had received reports that others were also injured.

The violence is the worst since the end of an ethnic Albanian rebellion in 2001, when all-out ethnic war was averted by the West using the lure of NATO and the EU to secure more rights for the 25-percent Albanian minority and get Albanian guerrillas to disarm.

In the election, the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is expected to win on a surge of nationalist defiance after Greece blocked a NATO invitation to Macedonia in April in a 17-year row over the name the country shares with a Greek province.

Gruevski's government, which will likely have to include a partner from the ethnic Albanian minority parties, will be asked to get NATO accession back on track, start EU membership talks and calm tensions after weeks of violence among rival Albanian factions.

"These elections are not just important, they are crucial, Macedonia is facing hard times," said voter Goran Petkovski, 44. "I hope everyone does as I did and casts their vote peacefully."

President Branko Crvenkovski has appealed for calm, noting that the first step to the EU and NATO was "to have peaceful, fair and democratic elections". Brussels has made clear the election is a test Macedonia must pass to start EU negotiations.

Some 1.77 million people are entitled to vote out of a population of 2 million. Polls close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), with voting overseen by some 2,000 local and 460 foreign monitors.

Serhiy Holovaty, head of the Council of Europe monitoring mission, told Reuters he had seen some irregularities in his early morning visits to a few polling stations, and had "noticed the possibility of manipulation of the results".

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