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Friday 17 November 2017

Macedonian opposition chief rejects emergency talks after parliament riot

Protesters clash with police to enter the parliament building in Skopje (AP)
Protesters clash with police to enter the parliament building in Skopje (AP)
Police block protesters entering into the parliament building in Skopje, Macedonia (AP)

Macedonia's opposition leader has rejected the president's call for emergency talks, hours after demonstrators - mostly supporters of the dominant conservative party - invaded parliament and assaulted opposition legislators.

An official with the Social Democrat party said Zoran Zaev would not attend the talks, but did not provide further detail.

Police said 102 people were injured, mostly lightly, in the riot. Mr Zaev was among the victims, as was the head of a small ethnic Albanian opposition party, and 22 police officers.

The country is in a deep political crisis that started with a wire-tapping scandal more than two years ago, and inconclusive elections last year further complicated matters.

Macedonia is also increasingly divided along ethnic lines, with demonstrators protesting against opposition plans to give greater powers to the ethnic Albanian minority - a quarter of the population.

The European Union condemned the violence and said the cornerstones of democracy should be respected. In neighbouring Serbia, prime minister Aleksandar Vucic called emergency security consultations over the unrest.

Conservative VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski also criticised the violence, but said his political opponents provoked it.

Speaking at his party headquarters early on Friday, Mr Gruevski said the Social Democrats consciously broke the country's law and constitution by electing a new parliament speaker - an ethnic Albanian - despite the months-old deadlock in efforts to form a new government.

"Greed to seize power at any cost is the direct cause which led to this adverse situation, and they bear responsibility for it," Mr Gruevski said.

The violence started when dozens of protesters, many masked, broke through a police cordon after the speaker's election, shouting, throwing chairs and wielding camera tripods abandoned by startled journalists.

Police said arrests were made, but gave no further details.

Clashes lasted for hours on Thursday night, with police initially doing little to stop the invasion, and the crowd inside parliament swelled to several hundred. Eventually, police used stun grenades to evacuate the building and free legislators and journalists trapped inside.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said: "Violence is unacceptable, even more so when it happens in the house of democracy."

Ms Mogherini, attending a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Malta, called the incident a "serious crisis that can be dangerous".

Macedonia's political crisis started in early 2015 when Mr Zaev accused then-prime minister Mr Gruevski of masterminding a massive illegal wire-tapping operation against the judiciary, police, politicians, journalists, foreign diplomats and religious leaders.

Mr Gruevski denies wrongdoing, and has blamed the wire-taps on unspecified foreign spies.

His party won December's elections with a slim majority, and then refused to form a coalition with ethnic Albanian parties who are demanding Albanian be declared the country's official second language.

Mr Zaev agreed to the Albanian demands, striking a coalition deal, but President Gjorge Ivanov refused him the mandate to govern, claiming the Albanian demands threaten the country's sovereignty.

A six-month uprising by ethnic Albanian rebels seeking stronger minority rights in 2001 brought the country to the brink of civil war. Peace was secured after international mediation.

AP

Press Association

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