Macedonia PM wins election in shadow of violence

Sun Jun 1, 2008 6:16pm EDT

(Releads with victory, adds PM quote, recasts throughout)

By Kole Casule

SKOPJE, June 1 (Reuters) - Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski claimed victory in Sunday's parliamentary election, a vote marred by alleged fraud and shootings that could cloud the country's European Union ambitions.

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

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

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

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

The figures partly vindicate Gruevski's controversial decision to call an election shortly after Greece blocked Macedonia's NATO invitation in April, betting that nationalist indignation over the snub would strengthen his hand.

Athens says Macedonia must change its name, which it shares with a neighbouring Greek province, or can never enter the EU and NATO.

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

The election commission noted instances of suspected fraud such as broken or missing ballot boxes. Two of its officials in the ethnic Albanian Tetovo area were briefly detained by an unknown 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 lure of 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 the police 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 of a political crisis," DUI official Izet Mexhiti told Reuters.

The two parties 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 favour of the DPA.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the United States embassy in Skopje both issued statements expressing concern and calling for restraint. Before the vote, Brussels had said the election is a test Macedonia must pass to start EU negotiations.

The West is worried by any signs of instability in the Balkans so soon after the February secession of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians from Serbia, the latest shudder in a region torn apart 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 small explosive 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 monitors reported the arrival of men with machine guns. They came under fire and retaliated, killing one gunman and injuring two others.

But the DUI said the incident was initiated by plain-clothes police, which stopped a convoy and started shooting.

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

At least 10 people have been arrested in connection with the violence. They included Agim Krasniqi, a commander of the guerrilla Albanian National Army in the 2001 rebellion who remained active after a peace deal was reached. (additional reporting by Benet Koleka; Writing by Ellie Tzortzi; editing by Mary Gabriel)