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Macedonia riots alarm EU

Wreckage from shops litters the streets of Bitola  

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana has expressed his "deep alarm" over the latest rioting in Macedonia.

Solana spoke out after ethnic Slavs went on the rampage in the ex-Yugoslav republic following the deaths of eight Macedonian soldiers at the hands of ethnic Albanian militants.

A curfew was imposed on the city of Bitola late on Wednesday, the scene of some of the worst of the rioting.

At least 10 shops in the ethnically-mixed city were destroyed on Tuesday, a night after dozens of buildings were damaged by young Slavs setting fire to them.

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Solana said: "I am deeply alarmed by the latest episodes of ethnically motivated violence in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

"Such incidents risk disrupting the enhanced dialogue under the leadership of President Boris Trajkovski and are seriously endangering relations between the ethnic communities of the country."

The EU is concerned that simmering tensions within Macedonia could lead to a wider Balkan conflict, and Solana has led a diplomatic drive to defuse growing hostility between the country's Slavic and Albanian populations over recent months.

Macedonia's two main ruling parties, the VMRO-DPMNE party of majority Slavs and DPA, the main party of the ethnic Albanian minority, issued separate statements calling for calm.

The VMRO-DPMNE said: "The loss of human life... during the last attack by terrorist forces should not and cannot be compensated by attacking property of innocent civilians. Such activities directly contribute to further destabilization of the country."

The Democratic Party of Albanians, the only Albanian party that has openly condemned the killings of the Macedonian troops, said: "After the latest horrifying murder of eight Macedonian soldiers, there are signs of extreme ethnic polarization in the country."

U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday also called for an end to violence in Macedonia, and offered support to President Boris Trajkovski's efforts to find a political solution to ethnic strife there.

During a 30-minute meeting in the Oval Office, Bush told Trajkovski he was impressed with the Macedonian leader's efforts to bring about change through dialogue, a senior U.S. administration official said.

"The president stressed the importance of breaking the cycle of violence and the importance of leadership in uniting the people," the official said.

He said Trajkovski, who was accompanied in the Oval Office by ethnic Albanian deputy prime minister Bedredin Ibraim, assured Bush he was committed to stopping the violence in order to move forward with inter-ethnic talks.

Rioting in Macedonia began hours after the funerals of soldiers killed on Saturday by ethnic Albanian militants near the border with Kosovo, the Associated Press said.

Four of the dead were from Bitola, about 170 kilometres (105 miles) southwest of the capital, Skopje, and six other soldiers were injured in the ambush.

The ambush was the most deadly attack since Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian militants began fighting in February.

Ethnic Albanians make up about one-third of Macedonia's two million people and have been demanding equal status with majority Slavs in the country.

Violence has been mostly centred around Tetovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian city in northwestern Macedonia.

In another incident, shots were fired at the Albanian Embassy by a passing car on Tuesday evening, state radio said. No one was injured.

Violence first erupted in February when a rebel group launched attacks against the security forces, demanding that Macedonia's constitution be rewritten to upgrade ethnic Albanians' status in the country.

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U.S. State Department

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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