Macedonia Braces for more Protests as Crisis Deepens

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Macedonia braced for fresh protests Thursday after an anti-government demonstration turned violent, following the president's shock decision to halt probes into more than 50 public figures embroiled in a wire-tapping scandal.

Protesters late Wednesday ransacked the offices used by President Gjorge Ivanov's team and set fire to furniture in sporadic clashes in the capital Skopje, as thousands took to the streets demanding his resignation.

A dozen people were arrested and one journalist was injured in the protests, a police spokesman said.

New protests were announced for 6 pm (1600 GMT) by supporters of the main opposition SDSM party, as well as a counter-demonstration by a pro-government group called the Association of Citizens for the Defense of Macedonia.

Late Wednesday, SDSM leader Zoran Zaev urged peaceful protests, in a widening political crisis that has raised concerns in both the European Union and the United States.

"We have to protest calmly. I am calling on protesters to be calm," Zaev told the Telma television channel.

The political crisis began last year when the SDSM accused then prime minister Nikola Gruevski of wiretapping some 20,000 people, including politicians and journalists, and said the recordings revealed high-level corruption.

The government denied the accusations and in return filed charges against Zaev, accusing him of "spying" and attempting to "destabilize" the Balkan country, which is hoping to join the EU.

A special prosecutor had been probing all the allegations.

Ivanov's amnesty came into effect Wednesday as the presidential decree was published in the official gazette.

It halts proceedings against 56 people, including top politicians, businessmen, judges, prosecutors and mayors.

The list includes strongman Gruevski -- an ally of the president who remains Macedonia's most influential political figure -- as well as former interior minister Gordana Jankulovska, ex-intelligence chief Sasho Mijalkov.

It also clears Zaev and another onetime SDSM leader, former Macedonian president Branko Crvenkovski.

Both the EU and US have voiced serious concerns over the amnesty, saying it raised questions over Macedonia's aspirations to join the EU.

The amnesty was immediately denounced by all political parties -- including Ivanov's own VMRO-DPMNE -- and has drawn protesters onto Skopje's streets for two consecutive nights.

"This government has to fall. They really went too far -- how he can pardon so many people at once?" said one of the protesters, economics student Slavica.

"Ivanov should resign. Gruevski and his gang should be accountable for their crimes," said English teacher Suzana, 33.

The original wire-tapping scandal triggered protests in Skopje, eventually prompting the EU to step in and mediate.

Gruevski stepped down as premier in January, paving the way for June 5 early parliamentary elections -- but the opposition has announced plans to boycott the polls, saying it fears electoral fraud.

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