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Shootings, Reports of Stolen and Stuffed Ballot Boxes Plague Macedonia Elections

Shootouts with police that led to at least one death and allegations of ballot fraud forced the suspension of voting in at least 20 polling stations Sunday, marring Macedonia's parliamentary election.

The ballot is seen as crucial to the Balkan country's hopes of joining NATO and the European Union, but the violence among rival ethnic Albanian parties and allegations of fraud threatened to derail the election.

Erwan Fouere, head of the European Union office in Macedonia, said he was "deeply concerned."

"We are entering now the critical hour ... before the polls close, and we have appealed to the government and the state authorities to do everything possible to prevent further violence," he told The Associated Press.

One person was killed and eight wounded in shootouts Sunday between rival ethnic Albanian groups or in standoffs with police, Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said. Thirteen people were arrested.

Voting was suspended in at least 20 polling stations — 1 percent of all polling stations in the country — due to irregularities or intimidation, elections commission spokesman Zoran Tanevski said.

The violence was concentrated in ethnic Albanian areas in Macedonia's northwest. Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million people. Rebels fought a six-month insurgency in 2001 for more rights for ethnic Albanians but since then, a bitter rivalry has intensified among the minority group's political leaders.

Electoral commission chief Jovan Josifovski said voting was calm in most of Macedonia but "the incidents in the northwest region overshadowed expectations that we would have the best-organized elections ever and we could prove to Europe that Macedonia has the capacity to conduct a free and fair election."

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's center-right VMRO-DPMNE is seen as almost certain to win the early parliamentary election. A recent opinion poll gave his party 31.3 percent compared with the opposition Social Democrats' 11.2 percent. The 37-year-old needs a majority in the 120-seat parliament to avoid having to form a coalition government.

The most serious incidents Sunday were two shootouts with police near the former ethnic Albanian rebel stronghold of Aracinovo and two near the headquarters of the main ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration.

Kotevski said DUI supporters triggered some of the shootouts by firing on police. But Ali Ahmeti, the ex-rebel leader who is how head of the DUI party, said DUI supporters were retaliating against police-backed "criminal structures" targeting his party.

"What is happening ... is more than slaughtering," Ahmeti said as he voted in Zajas, 70 miles (115 kilometers) southwest of Skopje. "We tried to escape provocation, but unfortunately these criminal structures are backed by the police. The situation is quite dramatic."

The head of the rival Democratic Party of Albanians, Menduh Thaci, said it was "clear: DUI activists shot at police."

In Aracinovo, near Skopje, Kotevski said police were called in to help election officials prevent a man from voting on behalf of multiple people. DUI supporters fired on the officers when they arrived, Kotevski said. Two people were injured, and one later died at the hospital.

Another shootout occurred near the DUI headquarters in Skopje's Cair district. DUI spokeswoman Ermira Mehmeti told The Associated Press that "all of a sudden, huge shooting started." Ahmeti — who claims he was the target of an attempted assassination in Tetovo on May 12 — was not in the building at the time.

In a separate incident, gunmen fired at a police vehicle near the DUI headquarters, injuring five people, Kotevski said. And at a nearby polling station, a shootout between supporters of DUI and the rival Democratic Party of Albanians left another two people wounded, he said.

President Branko Crvenkovski appealed for calm.

"I want to express my hope that all this will end, that we will manage to calm the atmosphere and that we will end the day in a way that is suitable for a country with democratic potential," he said.

Voting also was suspended in Gurgurnica in the northwest after men showed up armed with machine guns. Polling stations in Malino, northwest of Skopje, never opened because ballot boxes were stolen overnight, the election commission said.

Voting also was halted in Ciflig because of ballot stuffing, and in Vrapciste, south of Tetovo, officials said.

In Tetovo, "no weapons" posters were prominently displayed at the entrance to a polling station. The EU and United States jointly had urged the government "to enforce a 'zero tolerance policy' for acts of violence or intimidation."