Violence halts Macedonian vote

 

One person was killed and several were wounded in shootings in ethnic Albanian areas during Macedonia's parliamentary election today, with voting halted in one town after a gun battle, officials said.

State news agency MIA reported scuffles in other Albanian areas and a small explosive device thrown at an empty cafe.

Just east of the capital Skopje, voting was halted in the town of Aracinovo after a gun battle.

A police source said officers had chased an unknown armed group through several villages, until they came under fire in Aracinovo. Police retaliated and injured one of the gunmen.

But a local official from the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) party, Shefik Duraku, disputed the police account, saying he was part of a convoy that was transporting ballot boxes and voting material between villages when they were stopped by plain-clothes police in six cars.

"They stopped our convoy and shot one round in the air, it was chaos, we got out from the cars and tried to flee," Mr Duraku told Reuters. One person from his group had died from his injuries and two others were lightly wounded.

A dozen police vehicles, including armed personnel carriers, were stationed a few kilometres from the entry to Aracinovo.

Closer to the town, 200 ethnic Albanians used cars parked in the middle of a street to set up a blockade.

In the capital's Cair neighbourhood, another shooting took place in the courtyard of a school serving as a polling station.

The violence, the worst since the end of an ethnic Albanian rebellion in 2001, is bad news for a country keen to show it is mature enough to start talks on European Union membership this year.

Despite progress on ethnic relations, the country is still largely poor and hamstrung in its progress by a 17-year dispute with Greece, which objects to its name because its northernmost province is also called Macedonia.

Athens blocked a NATO invitation in April, raising fears that Macedonia's future EU membership would also be compromised.

The West is worried about instability in the Balkans so soon after Kosovo Albanians seceded from Serbia in February, the last shudder in a region that saw a decade of conflict in the 1990s with the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Reuters