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Macedonian president stands by wiretapping pardons

Thousands of people have protested in the Macedonian capital for a fourth night against the president's decision to grant pardons in a wiretapping scandal. The political crisis is deepening in the volatile Balkan state.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov on Friday stood firm on his decision to pardon 56 politicians involved in a wiretapping and corruption scandal that has embroiled the small Balkan country in more than a year-long political crisis.

The president's

decision this week to drop the investigation

- in which a former prime minister and opposition politicians were involved - triggered international criticism over the rule of law and mass

opposition demonstrations

to reverse the decision. Protesters gathering in Skopje over the past few days have demanded Ivanov step down.

Addressing the nation in a televised address on Friday, the president said he stood by the pardons.

"I think the decision protects the state interest and I inform you that I am standing by it," Ivanov said.

"Anyone who thinks that a right has been taken from him or that I have done him a bad favor, or wants to prove his innocence in court, I call on him personally, in a written form, to submit a request to annul the decision regarding him," he added.

The address came hours after the three main parties wrote Ivanov urging him to reverse the pardons.

Watch video 00:30

Protests in Skopje

Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, a close ally of Ivanov who held the position from 2006 until he resigned in January, on Friday requested Ivanov withdraw his pardon, his VMRO-DPMNE party spokesman Ivo Kotevski said.

The parliamentary speaker on Friday also called early elections for June 5 as agreed upon by an earlier

EU-brokered deal to end the political crisis

.

The main opposition SDSM has said it would boycott the election. The party's leader Zoran Zaev, who was included in the pardon, argued the elections would not be free and fair.

US and European condemnation

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the rotating chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said the pardons were "detrimental to the rule of law."

"The priority now must be to redouble efforts to establish the jointly agreed minimum conditions so that credible elections can nonetheless be held in the near future," Steinmeier said in a statement.

The United States mission to the OSCE on Thursday urged Ivanov to reverse the pardons, saying it called into question the rule of law and the ability of Macedonia to hold credible elections in June.

European Council President Donald Tusk warned Macedonia was risking its future in the EU and NATO, which it aspires to join.

Ivanov responded on Friday by calling on foreign diplomats to watch their comments.

"I call on the representatives of the international community to be careful in their behavior and activities and to remind them that they might be misinterpreted," Ivanov said.

Simmering crisis boils over

The political crisis in the country of 2 million people arose in February 2015 when the SDSM accused then-Prime Minister Gruevski of wiretapping 20,000 people, including politicians, judges and journalists.

Zaev has since gradually released recordings that revealed high-level corruption, vote rigging, government interference with the judiciary and media, and even a murder cover-up.

The government has denied the allegations and charged Zaev of spying and working with a foreign intelligence agency to destabilize the country.

Both parties have said they want the investigations - a part of the four party EU-brokered agreement reached in July to end the crisis - to continue.

The wiretapping crisis deepened already simmering tensions following 2014 elections, which Zaev said were unfair and illegitimate.

The current political crisis is the biggest to hit the Balkan country since emerging from a 2001 civil war with Albanian separatists.

cw, nm/cmk (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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