Macedonia Shootouts Tarnish Vote

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- 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, tarnishing Macedonia's parliamentary election.

The ballot is seen as crucial to the Balkan country's hopes of joining NATO and the European Union, but even before polls opened, the campaign was tainted by violence among rival ethnic Albanian parties and claims of fraud.

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

The State Election Commission suspended voting in at least 20 polling stations -- 1 percent of all polling stations in the country -- because of irregularities or intimidation, commission spokesman Zoran Tanevski said.

The violence was concentrated in ethnic Albanian areas in Macedonia's northwest. The minority makes 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.

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's center-right VMRO-DPMNE is seen as almost certain to win the election being held two years early. A recent opinion poll gave his party 31.3 percent compared with the opposition Social Democrats' 11.2 percent.