News 08 Mar 13

Macedonia Riot Police Thwart Violent Protest

Police stopped around 200 stone-throwing Albanian protesters reaching the government building amid a new outbreak of ethnically-charged violence in Skopje.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

 Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

A group of angry youths attempted to march on the Macedonian government building after Friday prayers at the Yaya-Pasha mosque in the heart of the ethnic Albanian-dominated Cair municipality of the capital.

Some of them wore scarves to cover their faces and chanted the name of the ethnic Albanian guerrilla army that battled Macedonian forces in 2001.

“Macedonian youth are beating Albanian youth. They started it first so that is why we are here,” one of the few adult protestors told Balkan Insight, referring to mob attacks the previous week.

Riot police prevented the protesters from approaching the city centre and the government building, and they smashed up a bus station, broke shop windows and destroyed some election campaign posters as they retreated towards Cair.

Some of the stones thrown by the protesters hit journalists, leaving a few with minor injuries.

Officers in riot gear were already patrolling the Macedonian capital on Friday morning as fears simmered over a possible repeat of violent clashes last week sparked by the appointment of a former ethnic Albanian guerrilla as the country's defence minister.

Some shop owners prepared to close their stores while drivers removed cars from parking lots in the city centre, fearing that they could be damaged.

Concerns had risen after calls went out on Facebook for new protests against what was described as the country’s “anti-Albanian policy” and “the torture and attacks on Albanians” carried out by the ethnic Macedonian majority.

Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Skopje saw two days of violence last Friday and Saturday, when protests and counter-protests escalated into clashes with riot police in the city centre and in Cair.

Throughout the week, ethnically-charged attacks on commuters across the capital added to the fearful mood. People were attacked by gangs on buses and on the streets, leaving several injured.

On Thursday evening, tear gas was thrown in a commuter bus in Skopje, hurting a young girl and several other people.

In response to last week’s protests and the calls for new ones, a group of local NGOs and activists on Thursday also appealed for calm.

The appeal was publicised at a rally at Skopje’s Old Bazaar, seen as a symbol of multiethnic coexistence in the capital.

Balloons were distributed with messages on them saying “pop the balloon, not someone’s head”.

In a head-to-head discussion on Alsat TV on Thursday, the controversial new defence minister Talat Xhaferi confronted Stojance Angelov, the head of the small opposition Dignity party, which strongly opposes his appointment.

Xhaferi insisted that his appointment was another victory for the reconciliation effort in Macedonia after the conflict between the ethnic Albanian guerrillas and government forces in 2001.

“The day is not far when Talat and Stojance will bow together before a joint memorial that will remind us that the past is closed and that we should work for the future,” Xhaferi said.

Angelov, however, said Xhaferi must resign because he had fought Macedonian troops.

Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

“For me, Talat Xhaferi is an extremist… This Albanian has fired at my friends,” Angelov said.

Dignity represents police and army veterans from the 2001 conflict, and insists that a former insurgent from the ranks of now-disbanded ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army has no right to lead the army that he fought against.

Balkan Insight meanwhile has discovered that the new controversial defence chief received a six-month suspended jail term for obstructing a police officer in 2008 after a rally by his Democratic Union for Integration in the town of Tetovo.

According to the final verdict from 2011, which Balkan Insight has obtained, the Tetovo court decided not to jail Xhaferi, who was by then an MP, but to put him on a two-year probation period instead.

He was nominated by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski as defence minister on February 18, before the expiry of his probation at the end of March this year.

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