(Updates with DPA withdrawal from government)
By Kole Casule
SKOPJE, March 13 (Reuters) - The main ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia’s governing coalition quit on Thursday in a row over minority rights, plunging Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s 18-month old government into crisis.
The Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) said it had pulled out over the government’s failure to back laws allowing greater use of the Albanian language and flag, and to provide benefits for veterans of the 2001 Albanian guerrilla insurgency.
It was unclear whether Gruevski might seek new partners, or lead a minority government until at least after next month’s NATO summit in Bucharest, where the former Yugoslav republic is bidding for an invitation to join the alliance.
The DPA decision ends Gruevski’s slim parliamentary majority, but political sources said a snap election was unlikely to be called immediately.
Macedonia borders the newly independent Kosovo. It was rescued from all-out ethnic civil war in 2001 by NATO and European Union mediation, but the West watches warily for any sign of a resurgence of armed Albanian revolt.
"The decision is final and confirmed by our central committee, which from today is no longer a member of the coalition," DPA leader Menduh Thaci told reporters after the committee met for four hours.
Macedonia’s prospects of joining NATO, a step that would keep it moving towards EU membership, are in doubt before the April 2-4 alliance summit at which southern neighbour Greece could veto its membership.
ALL OPTIONS OPEN
"We have a serious political crisis, and it’s happening at the least opportune and hardest moment for our country," President Branko Crvenkovski said on Thursday.
"This situation is unacceptable, and we should overcome it immediately," Crvenkovski added. "We must focus on the key issue, the NATO summit and how to receive an invitation."
The DPA has also complained that Macedonia has yet to recognise neighbouring Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians last month declared independence from Serbia with Western backing.
Political sources said Gruevski could seek a broad coalition of all main parties to steer Macedonia through the coming months. The opposition Social Democrats said "all options" were on the table.
"My question is, which of these options will solve the problem," said Social Democrat leader Radmila Sekerinska. "We do not have much time."
Greece has threatened to block Macedonia’s accession to NATO if Macedonia does not accept a different name. Macedonia is also the name of Greece’s northern province, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
The United States, concerned about stability in the Balkans, said it was not the time for political infighting.
"Macedonia has a golden opportunity to receive an invitation to NATO, well-deserved after serious and successful reform efforts. The name dispute with Greece stands as the remaining impediment," the U.S. embassy in Skopje said in a statement. (Writing by Matt Robinson and Ellie Tzortzi; Editing by Richard Williams)