SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Some 30 people have been arrested after an outbreak of the worst ethnic violence in Macedonia since the small Balkan country came to the brink of civil war 11 years ago, authorities said Monday.
Increased security had been ordered in several cities where clashes occurred involving rival gangs of youths from the majority Macedonian community and ethnic Albanians, leaving dozens injured, Interior Ministry and police officials said.
During several days of rioting, youths attacked buses and used iron bars, knives and baseball bats in street fights.
The violence erupted after two ethnic Albanian men were shot dead by police in an apparent dispute over a parking space in the western town of Gostivar.
Political leaders called for calm over the weekend but also warned that police would take a tough line against rioters.
“There are people who want to disrupt peace in this country,” Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said.
“The police will do everything in their power to find those responsible for these incidents,” he said. “Anyone planning to take part in these violent actions, should know they will face the full force of the law.”
Police reported a lull in violence overnight Sunday for the first time in several days, after an increased security presence was ordered in the capital Skopje and elsewhere. The Interior Ministry ordered police to use public buses to go to work to ward off fresh attacks.
The worst rioting was reported in the cities of Gostivar, Skopje, Tetovo and Prilep, police said.
Ethnic tension has been simmering in Macedonia since the end of an armed rebellion in 2001, when ethnic Albanian rebels fought government forces for about eight months, seeking greater rights for their community.
The conflict left 80 people dead, and ended with the intervention of NATO troops.
Ethnic Albanians, who are mostly Muslim, make up nearly a third of Macedonia’s population of 2.1 million people in a country that is majority Orthodox Christian.
A month ago, religious tension flared during a carnival celebration when men dressed as women in burqas and apparently mocked the Quran. The Jan. 13 incident at the Vevcani festival prompted demonstrations by Muslims, some of which turned violent.
Over the weekend, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urged police to respond swiftly to violence.
“Violence can never be condoned, especially in a sensitive, multiethnic environment,” said the OSCE’s mission chief in Skopje, Ralf Breth.
He appealed to families, school directors and teachers “to exert vigilance over their children and students to prevent them from engaging in violence.”
And he added: “I also call on all stakeholders, especially political parties, civil society, and local authorities, to strongly condemn these acts of violence from whichever side they come, act responsibly and avoid increasing tensions. Responsible media reporting would also help to calm the situation.”