One shot dead and nine wounded as violence mars Macedonian polls

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The Independent Online

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski declared victory in Macedonia's early parliamentary election yesterday after a vote marred by reports of fraud and gunbattles that could deal a blow to the Balkan country's European Union and NATO aspirations.

Violence that centered on ethnic Albanian areas left one person dead and eight wounded, authorities said, and underscored the increasing rivalry between the minority's two main parties.

Authorities suspended voting in 22 polling stations — 1 percent of the country's total — because of intimidation, violence or reports of ballot fraud, and said they would hold reruns for those areas.

State election commission spokesman Zoran Tanevski said that with votes from 97 percent of polling stations counted, VMRO won 48.21 percent, far ahead of the Social Democrats' 23.19 percent. The Democratic Party of Albanians led by Menduh Thaci had 10.33 percent, while the rival ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration had 11.23 percent.

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

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

"I regret for the violence and incidents that broke in Macedonia's northwest, in the areas with ethnic Albanians. But the vote was mostly fair and peaceful in the rest of the country."

In the predominantly ethnic Albanian town of Tetovo, hundreds of Thaci's supporters gathered in front of the DPA's headquarters where music blasted from loudspeakers and dozens of cars circled the main square, waving flags and shooting in the air. The DPA is part of the outgoing governing coalition.

Western observers expressed grave concern over the conduct of the election.

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

Such intimidation and violence "have no place in a democratic society," he told The Associated Press.

Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said one person was killed, eight were wounded and 21 were arrested. Those detained included former rebel commander Agim Krasniqi, who had led a 50-strong armed group into a village north of Skopje in 2004 claiming the government and ethnic Albanian leaders had broken promises to provide former rebels with an amnesty and jobs.

The head of the Social Democrats, Radmila Sekerinska, congratulated Gruevski on his victory, but criticized the conduct of the election.

"The price that we have paid today is to high because there were a loss of human life, violations, shootings," she said. "These were the worst organized elections and the winners are taking now the huge responsibility for Macedonia."

Macedonia had hoped the election would produce a strong government and prove it was ready to set a date for the start of EU accession talks. The country was also bitterly disappointed at being blocked from joining NATO by neighboring Greece because of a dispute over its name.

Political analyst Biljana Vankovska said the violence had created "the worst scenario that someone could imagine for Macedonia."