SKOPJE, Macedonia – Hundreds of people protesting plans to give ethnic Albanians (search) control in a southwestern Macedonian town hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at police, who retaliated by firing rubber bullets and tear gas, police said.
The clashes injured 15 protesters and 24 officers, none of them seriously, early Friday. They started after protesters tried to storm governing party offices in Struga, police said.
As violence spread to surrounding streets, police used rubber bullets and water cannons to quell the riots, even firing live ammunition into the air as a warning, police said in a statement. At least seven cars and garbage containers were set on fire.
Some 600 people gathered for the protest in Struga, 100 miles southwest of the capital, Skopje.
They surrounded the offices of the governing Social Democrats, where Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski and the party's general secretary, Nikola Kjurciev, had arrived from Skopje (search) to try to persuade local ethnic Macedonians to halt their weeklong protests against a draft law to be debated in parliament Monday.
The clashes kept the officials trapped inside the party building for hours.
Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski (search) condemned the violence, saying it had "nothing to do with democratic forms of opposition."
The decentralization plan is a key point in the 2001 Western-brokered peace deal that ended a six-month conflict between Macedonian government troops and ethnic Albanian rebels, who launched the insurgency in an effort to secure more rights. Ethnic Albanians are a minority in Macedonia, comprising about 25 percent of the 2 million population.
The opposition, comprised of ethnic Macedonian hard-liners and nationalists, contends that the decentralization plan -- endorsed by the multiethnic government and welcomed by Western and EU representatives -- would divide the country along ethnic lines.
The proposed legislation would redefine the borders of some communities, including Struga, to include adjoining ethnic Albanian villages. This would make ethnic Albanians the local majority, giving them control over the municipality. Ethnic Macedonians, however, would still enjoy cultural rights, including schooling in their own language.
Buckovski, the defense minister, called the riots a "planned murder attempt" and accused Macedonia's nationalist opposition of staging the violence.
But Struga mayor Romeo Dereban accused Buckovski of instigating the violence because he "showed up in a town where he was clearly unwelcome."
Nikola Gruevski, leader of the hardline opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, called on the government to resign, accusing it of "arrogantly ignoring the will of the people."
Earlier this week, VMRO-DPMNE and several smaller opposition parties demanded parliament drop the decentralization legislation.
The draft law, a condition for Macedonia's eventual membership in NATO and the EU, would also expand Skopje and make it officially bilingual.