Shootings that led to at least one death and allegations of ballot fraud forced elections officials to suspend voting in at least 17 polling stations Sunday, marring the start of Macedonia's early parliamentary election.
The election could prove crucial to this Balkan country's hopes to join NATO and the European Union. But even before the polls opened, the campaign was tainted by violence among rival ethnic Albanian parties and claims of fraud, with international monitors recording more than a dozen pre-election attacks.
The most serious election day violence occurred in the former ethnic Albanian rebel stronghold of Aracinovo, near Skopje, where two separate shootings at least one person dead.
Two party supporters were wounded during a shootout with special police, and one later died of his injuries, said Ermira Mehmeti, spokeswoman for the main ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration.
Villagers told reporters that trouble began when one person tried to vote on behalf of multiple people.
Police cordoned off the village and the State Election Commission said voting was suspended in eight polling stations in Aracinovo. Earlier in the day, the commission had received reports of broken ballot boxes in the village.
Mehmeti also reported gunfire near the party's headquarters. She said party members inside the building took cover in the basement but the party's leader, ex-rebel leader Ail Ahem, was not in the building at the time.
On May 12, gunmen had shot at Ahmeti's car as he campaigned in Tetovo, wounding a bystander in what he described as an assassination attempt.
Voting also was suspended in Gurgurnica near Tetovo in the country's ethnic Albanian northwest after men appeared armed with machine guns. Polling stations in the village of Malino, northwest of Skopje, never opened Sunday because ballot boxes were stolen overnight, the commission said.
It said voting also was halted in the village of Ciflig near Gostivar in the northwest because of ballot stuffing, and in Vrapciste south of Tetovo.
Ethnic Albanians account for about a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million people. In 2001, rebel forces from the National Liberation Army fought a six-month insurgency against government forces in a bid to win more rights for ethnic Albanians.
Authorities had said a record number of police would be deployed for the vote, especially in volatile ethnic Albanian areas.
In Tetovo, "no weapons" posters _ similar to no smoking posters, only with an image of a gun _ were prominently displayed at the entrance to a polling station.
The European Union and United States called on Macedonia "to enforce a 'zero tolerance policy' for acts of violence or intimidation," and said in a joint statement Saturday that "there must be an end to impunity for offenders who break the law, tarnishing this country's democratic credentials."
On the eve of the election, Radmila Sekerinska, leader of the Social Democrats, said the appearance of misleading campaign posters mimicking her own and voter lists with names almost identical to those on her own list was "a scheme aimed at transferring some of the votes from our list to the governing list."
Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's center-right VMRO-DPMNE is seen as almost certain to the election being held two years early. A recent opinion poll gave his party 31.3 percent of the vote compared with the Social Democrats' 11.2 percent.
But it is unclear whether the 37-year-old leader will be able to win a majority of parliament's 120 seats and avoid having to resort to a coalition to form a government.
The new government will face a formidable task.
It must conclude protracted and bitter negotiations with southern neighbor Greece over Macedonia's name _ a dispute that led to the country being blocked from joining NATO at an alliance summit in Bucharest in April, triggering a crisis that led to Gruevski calling the snap polls two years ahead of time.
It must also ensure that a date is set for the start of EU entry negotiations, and calm tensions among ethnic Albanians, as well as decide on whether to recognize its northern neighbor Kosovo as an independent country and conclude negations on delineating their shared border.
Gruevski called the snap poll shortly after a political crisis exacerbated by Greece's veto on Macedonia's NATO aspirations at an alliance summit in Bucharest. Much of his campaign has focused on national pride and the name issue.
Greece refuses to allow Macedonia to join NATO or the EU unless it changes its name, which Athens says implies claims on its own northern province of Macedonia.