Macedonia's President Presumed Dead in Plane Crash

Macedonia (search) state radio switched to classical music and the government declared a day of mourning after President Boris Trajkovski (search) was missing and presumed dead in a plane crash Thursday in southern Bosnia.

Mourners lit candles in front of Trajkovski's office in the capital, Skopje, and condolences poured in from world leaders. Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) called the moderate Trajkovski "a great friend of the United States" who helped put his ethnically divided nation on "a stable footing."

The president's party initially said he died in the crash near Bitonja, 50 miles south of Sarajevo -- a remote, rocky area of mountainous southern Bosnia that is treacherous in the bad weather and heavily mined from Bosnia's 1992-1995 war (search).

However, NATO peacekeepers said the wreckage was not found, contrary to a report by Bosnian police, and Macedonia's government said the 47-year-old president was officially considered missing and presumed dead.

An air search was called off at nightfall, but foot patrols continued into the evening, said Capt. Dave Sullivan, spokesman for NATO-led peacekeepers aiding the search. Reconnaissance aircraft aiding the effort were to resume efforts at daybreak Friday.

"We still don't have official information from Bosnian officials that there are any survivors ... but they are saying that the chances of anyone surviving are minimal," Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski said in a nationally televised address.

"The loss is huge. We should mourn, but we shouldn't be afraid. Macedonia is a strong and stable country."

Macedonia's government met in emergency session Thursday evening and said parliament speaker Ljubco Jordanovski was the acting president. The Defense Ministry said security was tightened along the former Yugoslav republic's borders and at key state and army institutions.

"All institutions are functioning normally and the security of the state is not in question," government spokesman Saso Colakovski said.

Friday was declared a day of mourning in both Macedonia and Bosnia.

Trajkovski's presumed death comes at a critical time for Macedonia, a tiny Balkan republic still tense after six months of ethnic conflict in 2001. Trajkovski was hailed widely for his efforts to get Macedonians and rival ethnic Albanians to live together peacefully.

European Union and NATO leaders urged Macedonia's government to carry on Trajkovski's work to secure lasting stability in the country.

"It is going to be very difficult for the people of Macedonia to fill that gap," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.

Trajkovski was en route to an international investment conference in Mostar, Bosnia, when his plane carrying six other officials and two pilots went down near Bitonja, officials said.

Bosnian police initially said they found wreckage of the U.S.-made twin-engine turboprop near the village. But Sullivan later denied that the wreckage was located, and police backed away from their earlier statement.

Macedonia's civil aviation authority said Trajkovski's plane was in full working condition and was flown by an experienced pilot. The 25-year-old plane was Macedonia's sole government aircraft for transporting officials.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said through a spokesman that Trajkovski, who called for including more ethnic Albanians in state bodies and institutions, would be remembered "for his crucial role in preserving the unity of his country and laying down the basis for the stability of a multiethnic Macedonian state."

Macedonia was to formally submit its application for membership in the European Union on Thursday in Ireland. But it canceled the presentation and called its delegation back from Dublin.

A Methodist minister, Trajkovski studied theology in the United States, where he converted from Orthodox Christianity. In November 1999, he was elected the second president in Macedonia's history.

His first major challenge came in 1999 when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians poured into northern Macedonia from neighboring Kosovo to flee the Serbian troops of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Trajkovski promptly called on the international community to aid Macedonia and help the Kosovo refugees. The country opened its borders and homes, and allowed NATO to station troops there in preparation for punishing airstrikes against Serbia over Kosovo.

In 2001, Macedonia's ethnic Albanians launched an insurgency to fight for more rights for their minority, which comprises a quarter of the country's 2 million people.

Through six months of bitter fighting, Trajkovski calmly steered the nation toward the Western-brokered peace deal that ended the conflict and urged reconciliation between the two ethnic communities.

Born in 1956 in the Macedonian village of Strumica, Trajkovski earned his law degree in Skopje. He entered politics in 1998 and served as deputy foreign minister under former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski.

Trajkovski was elected president in a narrow win against a candidate of the reformed communists, securing a five-year tenure with only about 70,000 votes, mostly through the support of ethnic Albanians.