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Macedonia PM rallies supporters as protesters dig in

AFP , Monday 18 May 2015
Macedonian protesters
A poster of the leader of the opposition socialdemocrats, Zoran Zaev is seen right during a protest in front of the Government building in Skopje, Macedonia, on Sunday, May 17, 2015 (Photo: AP)
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Macedonian opposition supporters set up a protest camp outside the offices of embattled Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski as thousands of his supporters were expected to turn out for a counter rally on Monday night.

More than 20,000 opposition protesters marched through the capital Skopje on Sunday to demand that Gruevski step down, accusing him of corruption, mass wiretapping and of fomenting ethnic tensions to hang onto power.

Opposition leader Zoran Zaev called on demonstrators to stay on the streets in front of Gruevski's neo-classical government headquarters "until he goes".

In the event, only about 100 people spent the night around a small stage set up on a lawn in the middle of a boulevard facing his offices. By Monday morning, a protest camp of around 50 tents was taking shape.

The small Balkan country is deeply divided by a year-long political crisis after disputed elections in April 2014, and still in shock after a bloody clash between police and ethnic Albanian gunmen left 18 dead earlier this month -- the worst violence since the country narrowly avoided civil war after an Albanian uprising in 2001.

With tensions high after Sunday's big show of force by the opposition, a rally in support of Gruevski was to be held at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) Monday in front of the parliament building, two kilometres (1.5 mile) from the opposition protest camp to avoid possible clashes.

Gruevski -- who only months ago seemed to have an unshakable grip on power -- will hope to gather at least as many of his own supporters despite the resignation last week of two key ministers and the intelligence chief embroiled in the wire-tapping scandal.

Sunday's march called by Zaev's Social Democratic SDSM brought many ethnic Albanians and Turks onto the streets as well as protesters from the majority Macedonian community.

Albanians make up about one quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million population.

Under pressure from the European Union, which Macedonia has applied to join, leaders of the country's four main parties were meeting again Monday to try to defuse the crisis, but analysts said there was little chance of any resolution.

Opposition supporter Biljana Smileski, one of the diehards who spent the night in front of the prime minister's office, said she did not expect trouble between rival protesters.

"With Gruevski everything is possible, but I believe that there should be no problem for us to exercise our constitutional right to protest," the 48-year-old told AFP.

Smileski sat with several friends at a camping table sipping her morning coffee while other protesters still slept in their tents.

"The night passed well. I will stay here until Gruevski steps down," another protester, Sime Kardanovski, 38, said.

One half of the highly-polarised local Macedonian-language media described Sunday's protest march, which passed off peacefully, as a "grandiose" gathering, with pro-government outlets condemning it as a rally of those "who want to destabilise" Macedonia.

Albanian-language media noted the presence of a large number of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians.

"Albanians, Macedonians, Turks united in a protest for a better future," said the Albanian-language TV channel Alsat-M.

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