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Violence Casts Shadow on Macedonian Elections

One person died and several were injured in separate shooting incidents that forced election officials to halt voting in at least 17 polling stations during Macedonia's snap parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Hand sprayed campaign poster of Albanian party leader of the Democratic Union for Integration, (DUI), of Ali Ahmeti, in Tetovo, Macedonia

Violence and strong tensions already marred the election campaigns in Macedonia

Polling stations in the village of Aracinovo near Skopje were closed after a gunman killed one person there in an attack on a Macedonian security patrol.

"One person has been killed and a few others have been wounded" a police officer told AFP news agency.

The area around the village was known as a stronghold of Albanian rebels who fought government forces in Macedonia's 2001.

In a separate incident, the headquarters of the county's main ethnic Albanian party were shot at in the capital city of Skopje, leaving at least three people injured.

"We were attacked," said Izet Mexhiti, a senior official of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) party, blaming activists of the rival Democratic Party of Albanians.

There were also early reports of ballot boxes and electoral material being stolen in another village northeast of Skopje.

No absolute majority

Nikola Gurevski speaking at a political rally

Gruevski's party is not expected to win enough votes to form the government on its own

Some 1.7 million Macedonians are eligible to cast ballots for 20 tickets running for the 120 assembly seats, but only three other than the center-right coalition led by the VMRO were expected to qualify for parliament.

Outgoing Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski called the elections in April, saying they were the only way out of a parliamentary paralysis. His VMRO is the clear frontrunner but is unlikely to win enough votes for an absolute majority.

The main opposition bloc led by the Social Democratic Alliance (SDSM) of Radmila Sekerinska was tipped to win only a third of the votes of Gruevski's coalition.

Crucial fight

Woman walks by election campaign posters

The elections are seen as a test of Macdonia's EU prospects

The crucial fight for votes was taking place among ethnic Albanians, a 25-percent minority which dominates the north-western part of the country.

Two rival Albanian parties, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), are fighting for supremacy and a place in the next government.

The DPA is a part of the outgoing cabinet, but the DUI was predicted to win more votes. The campaign among Albanians was marred by violence.

The election is yet again, as in 2006, 2002 and in a 2004 referendum, viewed as a test of the political maturity of Macedonia, which was on the verge of a civil war in 2001.

The country remains uninvited to join NATO over the row about its name with neighboring Greece and has not progressed much towards European Union membership since winning the status of a candidate three years ago.

All eyes on EU, NATO

An election worker is escorted by a police officer while distributing ballot boxes to a polling station

Despite security measures, there have been reports of election irregularities

Now Macedonians, concerned over secessionist aspirations among the Albanians, feel that the very survival of their country hinges on membership of the EU and particularly NATO.

Hundreds of foreign and thousands of local observers were monitoring the election process. Voting started at 7 am (0500 GMT) and would end 12 hours later.

The first unofficial results are expected hours after the voting ends and the state election commission must announce its own unofficial results within 12 hours of the close of voting.

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