SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 20 (UPI) -- A flare-up of ethnic violence in Macedonia involving the country's ethnic Albanian minority prompted a weekend peace rally in Skopje.
Around 2,000 people gathered at the March for Peace rally, attended by Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, in which protesters denounced division of the country along ethnic lines and called for understanding after several weeks of ethnic tensions.
Rally organizers told the crowd: "We are for peace! We want to live with each other, not next to each other!" as hundreds of supporters cheered them on, the Serbian news agency Tanjug reported.
The call for peace came in the wake of Feb. 29 incident in the northwestern town of Gostivar in which a Macedonian police officer killed two young ethnic Albanian men.
Some local media indicated the officer had a personal dispute with the Albanian men over a parking space, while others maintained the officer was the victim of an assault by an Albanian drug dealer group, the Sofia News Agency said.
The situation worsened March 9 when violent protests erupted in Gostivar, where about half the population is ethnic Albanian. Local media said there was a series of attacks on buses and street fights between Macedonians and ethnic Albanian youths.
Further violence was seen over the next few days.
Skopje rally organizer Ana Jovkovska told Tanjug the event was organized to show that many Macedonians want to live together with other ethnicities.
"We want pacifism, love, friendship and we don't want violence and manipulations," she said. "We have had enough of political games because we want to live together in peace."
The clashes constituted the worst ethnic violence in Macedonia since a near-civil war between Skopje and ethnic Albanian rebels broke out in 2001. The internationally brokered Ohrid Framework Agreement, reached later that year, put an end to the uprising and called for the rights of all in the country to be respected.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, the United States and NATO have been working to support the implementation of agreement.
OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier praised Macedonian leaders for working to defuse the violence in Gostivar.
"I condemn the recent violence and welcome the quick action by the authorities to calm the situation and bring the perpetrators to justice," he said March 13 after meeting with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska.
"The resolution of such incidents with a transparent, impartial and thorough investigation is very important because leaving such cases unresolved can negatively influence inter-ethnic cohesion."
The violence also came just as the EU opened high-level accession talks for Macedonia's long-stalled bid for membership.
After earlier expressing "deep regret" over the violence, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule arrived in Skopje Friday for a "high-level accession dialogue" to overcome obstacles for EU candidacy.
The ethnic violence was to be part of the agenda, the Serbian Beta News Agency reported.
"What we are starting today is about comprehensive process, active political dialogue between us and also about inclusive framework for reforms," Fule said. "I stress again that these efforts are aimed to bring benefits to all people of your country."