Skopje - A car bomb exploded in central Skopje yesterday as the car of the Macedonian President, Kiro Gligorov, passed by, injuring the leader of the Balkan republic and killing his driver.
Macedonia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, is potentially a tinder box. Fears that the violence which has swept Bosnia and Croatia could also envelop Macedonia have already led the United Nations to put in peace-keeping forces
Doctors said they had operated on Mr Gligorov, 78, for head injuries, and Saso Ordanoski, director of Macedonian television said the President had lost his right eye. Official sources said that on Macedonia's request, a French medical team arrived to help care for the President."For now, Gligorov's life is not in danger," an official police statement said. Doctors said any head injury was serious for a man of Mr Gligorov's age.
Police said that the President's driver, Alexander Spirovski, was killed. His security officer and five pedestrians were injured when the remote- control bomb exploded.
About 45lb of explosives were packed into the boot of an old Citroen and Mr Gligorov's armoured Mercedes took the brunt of the blast. Television film showed the car with its front right door ripped open, and Mr Gligorov's rear right door closed, but penetrated by metal shards. A man who appeared to be badly injured was lying on the pavement, gesturing for help.
Witnesses at the scene of the blast, near the Bristol Hotel, in the centre of the city, said most windows as high as the ninth floor on nearby buildings were shattered by the explosion, which occurred at about 9.30am. The site is about 100 yards from Mr Gligorov's offices.
Police said two suspects in their mid 20s were arrested, but their identities were not known. No one immediately claimed responsibility. Borders were sealed for several hours after the explosion, but were later reopened, police said. Thorough checks were being made of travel documents. Police sources said that anti-terrorism experts from the United States were to help in the investigation.
Macedonia gained independence in the break-up of the old Yugoslav federation, but has found independence difficult. The republic has a large ethnic Albanian minority and is a historic point of contention for neighbouring Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania.
About 1,000 US soldiers are stationed on Macedonia's northern border with Serbia in the UN's first precautionary peace-keeping mission. Despite its volatile politics, Macedonia has largely been peaceful.
Local media speculated the bomb might be the work of Macedonian nationalists who are strongly opposed to compromises with the republic's neighbours.
Mr Gligorov was a leading Communist official in former Yugoslavia, and was elected Macedonian President in 1992. He returned on Monday from a one-day trip to Belgrade, where he had talks with Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, on mutual recognition of the two former Yugoslav states.
Mr Gligorov said mutual recognition between rump Yugoslavia and Macedonia was expected by early November, but suggested it depended on a peace agreement for Bosnia.
Serbia has not recognised its southern neighbour because of border disputes and solidarity with Greece, which claimed Macedonia has territorial aspirations on its province bearing the same name.
Greece condemned the attack on Mr Gligorov. A spokesman, Telemachos Hytiris, expressed the government's "abhorrence and condemnation" of the attack, and relief that Mr Gligorov had survived. Bulgaria also condemned the attack, as did the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel.
Macedonia and Greece signed a US-brokered agreement on 13 September, under which Greece recognised its northern neighbour without recognising its name.
Greece will also lift an 18-month trade embargo after Macedonia changes its flag to delete an ancient Greek symbol, and declares that its constitution does not imply claims on Greek territory.