Anti-Bulgaria rally in Macedonia over ethnic ban

SKOPJE, Mar 11, 2000 -- (Reuters) Several hundred Macedonians protested on Friday against Bulgaria's ban of an ethnic Macedonian party, which is testing a recent rapprochement between the two Balkan states.

Protesters hurled eggs at the Bulgarian embassy in Skopje and accused the Macedonian government of not doing enough to protect ethnic Macedonians living in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria's Constitutional Court last week decided to ban the OMO-Ilinden party on grounds it was intent on separating the western Pirin region from the rest of Bulgaria.

OMO-Ilinden denies charges of separatism, saying it only seeks cultural autonomy for ethnic Macedonians in the region.

The court hearing was initiated by 61 members of Bulgarian parliament.

Bulgaria has refused so far to include mention of ethnic minorities in its constitution, fearing it could encourage separatist movements, particularly among ethnic Turks who account for around eight percent of the population.

There are no official or reliable figures for the number of ethnic Macedonians in Bulgaria.

The Skopje parliament on Thursday passed a declaration saying the ban was "directed against the national identity of Macedonians in Bulgaria".

Macedonian Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski, a driving force behind improving ties with Bulgaria, said earlier this week the court's move "does not contribute to the development of the good neighborly relations between the two states".

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said he regretted the decision.

The two states share a common, if often violent history. Their languages are similar. Borders have been re-carved many times.

But the resolution of a long-running row last year led to increased political and economic cooperation between the two Balkan states.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Ivan Kostov was quoted by the BTA news agency on Friday as saying the government could not interfere in the sphere of the Constitutional Court.

He said there would be no let-up in efforts at government and parliamentary levels to promote better ties with Macedonia.

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