News 17 Feb 14

Macedonia Mystery Poisoning Sparks Ethnic Jitters

The authorities are investigating after an unexplained mass poisoning of Albanian students and professors in an ethnically-mixed school in Macedonia’s west sparked fears of a targeted attack.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

The town of Gostivar, where the incident happened.

Police and medical examiners have so far been baffled by the incident that took place on Friday in the ethnically-mixed town of Gostivar, where some 60 students and professors at the local Economy High School complained of sickness and breathing problems.

Twelve of them were hospitalised but insisted on leaving for home a few hours afterwards, doctors at Skopje Clinical Centre said.

The incident quickly picked up an ethnic tone after news spread that it happened during the high school’s second shift, when only ethnic Albanian students were present.

Some speculated that it was linked to the forthcoming April presidential elections and that someone might have wanted to cause ethnic tensions between the country’s Macedonian and minority Albanian population.

The ethnic Albanian mayor of Gostivar, Nevzat Bejta, said the incident was serious but insisted that “there are no grounds for inter-ethnic tension”.

He said however that it had caused concerns among Albanians in the town who were wondering why only Albanian children got sick. Bejta rejected speculation that the students might have faked the entire incident.

In the absence of official data, media have speculated that it might have been caused by tear gas, as many of the patients initially complained about difficulties with breathing and an odd smell.

But the head of the Skopje Toxicology Clinic, Andon Chibishev, said that his staff had failed to find anything suspicious.

“We have patients who were brought in with certain symptoms that are subjective. Objectively, we failed to identify anything positive,” he said.

Under the instructions of the local prosecutor in Gostivar, samples from the patients have been sent for forensic analysis and the authorities checked video recordings of school entrances for any suspicious activity.

News of the incident got the attention of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who visited the town on Sunday in order to see if he could help, he said. Gruevski urged restraint until the investigation yields results.

“I have my own personal opinion about the case, but I would be restrained until the institutions in charge, foremost the police and the medical team, come up with their own final information,” Gruevski said.

In 2001, the country went through a brief armed conflict between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents, which ended with the signing of a peace deal that granted greater rights for the Albanians, who make up a quarter of Macedonia’s 2.1 million population.

The incident came after several other cases of mysterious mass poisonings of Albanian students over the past two decades since Macedonia’s independence.

In one such case in 2002 in the town of Kumanovo, some 200 young Albanians, most of them high school students, complained of poisoning symptoms that caused many of them to be hospitalised.

However the authorities failed to determine any cause for the mysterious outbreak which fed suspicions that their sudden illness might have been faked.

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