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Tens Of Thousands Gather For Antigovernment Rally In Macedonia

  • RFE/RL's Balkan Service

SKOPJE -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators attended an antigovernment rally in Macedonia's capital, Skopje, on May 17, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

Opposition parties, led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and supported by civil organizations and students, called for the protest, following the release of recordings which appear to show ministers plotting vote-rigging.

At the heart of the crisis is a cache of wiretapped conversations that the leader of the Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, has been releasing since January.

Zaev claims that Gruevski, who has been in power since 2006, was behind the mass wiretapping of more than 20,000 Macedonians, including ministers, politicians, police, journalists, judges, foreign ambassadors, and religious leaders.

The crisis has been deepened by deadly violence last weekend, when eight police and 14 gunmen -- allegedly ethnic-Albanian militants from neighboring Kosovo -- were killed during a battle in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo.

Gruevski said on May 16 that he had "no intention of resigning or accepting a transitional government."

Majority Macedonians carrying Macedonian flags, mingled with minority Albanians, Turks, Serbs, and Roma at the demonstration.

LIVE BLOG: Opposition Protest In Skopje (In Macedonian)

Social Democrat leader Zaev, who described the protest as "multiethnic," told the crowds on May 17, "We will stay here in front of the government. Nikola Gruevski must resign. Until he goes we are not going to leave either."

The great majority of the protesters departed as night fell, but hundreds of opposition supporters have put up tents outside the government building, intending to stay for days.

WATCH: Protesters Set Up Tents In Skopje

Zaev claimed that more than 100,000 attended the incident-free rally.

RFE/RL correspondents in Skopje reported that some 40,000 people attended the event.

Protesters from different parts of the capital and from across Macedonia came to the demonstration.

More than 3,000 residents of southwestern Macedonia left the city of Bitola early on May 17 in a convoy comprised of 19 buses, 14 minibuses, and about 300 cars.​

WATCH: Forty Thousand Demand Skopje Government's Resignation

Police equipped with antiriot gear, including gas masks, were deployed in Skopje ahead of the protests.

Reflecting the government's control over the media, the state TV station MRT did not report the rally.

A rival pro-government demonstration has been called for May 18.

The opposition Social Democratic Union has boycotted parliament since Gruevski's reelection in April 2014, claiming he committed fraud.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa