Skopje: Macedonia braced for fresh protests over the president's shock decision to halt probes into more than 50 public figures embroiled in a wire-tapping scandal.
Protesters late yesterday ransacked the offices used by President Gjorge Ivanov's team and set fire to furniture in sporadic clashes in the capital Skopje, as thousands took to the streets demanding his resignation.
New protests were announced for 6 pm by supporters of the main opposition SDSM party, as well as a counter-demonstration by a pro-government group called the Association of Citizens for the Defence of Macedonia.
SDSM leader Zoran Zaev said he would join the demonstrations, the latest action in a widening political crisis that has set alarm bells ringing in the European Union and the United States.
He told reporters he was "calling for calm" at the protest, while urging police "not to overstep their power."
US ambassador Jess Baily also urged protesters to refrain from violence.
"Peaceful demonstration is a fundamental democratic right. Violence and vandalism is not," Baily said on Twitter.
The crisis erupted last year when the SDSM accused then prime minister Nikola Gruevski of wiretapping some 20,000 people, including politicians and journalists, and said the recordings revealed high-level corruption.
The government denied the accusations and in return filed charges against Zaev, accusing him of "spying" and attempting to "destabilise" the Balkan country, which is hoping to join the EU.
The original scandal triggered protests in Skopje, eventually prompting the EU to step in and mediate.
Gruevski stepped down as premier in January, paving the way for early elections on June 5 -- but the opposition has announced a boycott, saying it fears electoral fraud.
Ivanov's decision to halt proceedings against 56 people, including top politicians, businessmen, judges, prosecutors and mayors, came into effect yesterday when his decree was published in the official gazette.
The list includes Gruevski -- an ally of the president who remains Macedonia's most influential political figure -- as well as former interior minister Gordana Jankulovska and ex-intelligence chief Sasho Mijalkov.
It also clears Zaev and another onetime SDSM leader, former president Branko Crvenkovski.
A special prosecutor had been probing the allegations but her office was caught by surprise by Ivanov's decision.
"We don't know how this information ended up in his hands as a large number of those people have never been mentioned," said one prosecutor, Lence Ristovska.