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Macedonia's prime minister declares victory in elections

Violence at polls deals blow to EU dreams

Police officers secured the scene of a shooting at a polling station in Skopje, Macedonia, yesterday. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said the vote was mostly fair and peaceful. Police officers secured the scene of a shooting at a polling station in Skopje, Macedonia, yesterday. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said the vote was mostly fair and peaceful. (ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Elena Becatoros
Associated Press / June 2, 2008

SKOPJE, Macedonia - Macedonia's prime minister declared victory yesterday in the Balkan country's parliamentary election after a vote that was marred by gun battles that left one person dead and eight wounded.

Nikola Gruevski said his center-right VMRO-DPMNE had won enough votes to gain a majority of Parliament's 120 seats, and opposition leader Radmila Sekerinska conceded defeat.

Yesterday's violence was a blow to Macedonia's hopes of proving its credentials to join the European Union and NATO. But Gruevski said in his victory speech that while he regretted the violence, the vote was mostly fair and peaceful.

"Macedonia has the power to go ahead. The country has the energy for progress to join NATO and EU," he said.

Hundreds of Gruevski's supporters spilled onto the main square in Skopje, the capital, to celebrate, waving party flags and chanting his name.

Jovan Josifovski, the head of the state election commission, said with votes from 97 percent of polling stations counted, VMRO won 48.21 percent of the vote - far ahead of the Social Democrats' 23.19 percent.

The Democratic Party of Albanians had about 10.33 percent, while the rival ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration had about 11.23 percent.

Yesterday, one person was killed and eight wounded in shoot-outs between rival ethnic Albanian groups or in standoffs with police, Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said. Twenty-one people were arrested.

The violence in ethnic Albanian areas forced authorities to suspend voting in 22 polling stations - 1 percent of the country's total, commission spokesman Zoran Tanevski said.

The government said voting would be repeated in those polling stations in two weeks.

"We are deeply concerned by the many . . . corroborated reports of not only acts of intimidation, but also blatant violence, shooting, injuries to innocent people," Erwan Fouere, head of the EU office in Macedonia, told the Associated Press.

Ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million people.

Rebels fought a six-month insurgency in 2001 for more rights, but now the two main ethnic Albanian political parties are locked in bitter rivalry.

For weeks, the parties - the Democratic Union for Integration led by former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, and Menduh Thaci's Democratic Party of Albanians - have been embroiled in a frequently violent campaign.

Tensions between the two have been high since the 2006 elections, when Gruevski picked the Democratic Party of Albanians as a governing coalition partner, even though it had won fewer votes than the Democratic Union for Integration.

Those detained yesterday included former rebel commander Agim Krasniqi, who had led a group of 50 armed people into a village north of Skopje in 2004, saying the government and ethnic Albanian leaders had broken promises to provide former rebels with amnesty and jobs.

Ahmeti's party said it would not recognize election results in seven municipalities, including in the main ethnic Albanian town of Tetovo, in the country's northwest, because of the violence.

"Macedonia has failed in the test of organizing free and democratic elections, which is the key test to establish a democratic state," said Democratic Union for Integration election official Izet Mexhidi.

Macedonia had hoped the election would produce a strong government, and would prove the country was a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Macedonia also was upset over being blocked from joining NATO by neighboring Greece because of a dispute over the country's name.

Even before the election, international observers recorded at least 13 reports of attacks, including several machine gun assaults against Democratic Union for Integration offices. In mid-May, Ahmeti's car was shot at in what he described as an assassination attempt. A bystander was wounded.

Ethnic Albanian voters were angered by the violence.

"A country aspiring to join NATO and EU should have never allowed something like this to happen," said Fisnik Sejdiu, who at 18 was voting for the first time.

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