Tirana (AFP) - Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama threatened on Wednesday that his country would veto Macedonia's NATO candidacy, arguing it did not respect the rights of its ethnic Albanian minority.
"Macedonia could not be a NATO member without respecting the Ohrid agreement and human rights," Rama told a regional ministerial meeting on the fight against terrorism.
He was referring to the peace deal that ended the 2001 conflict between the Macedonian government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels seeking more rights.
Ethnic Albanians make up around one quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million population. Relations between Macedonia's main communities remain scarred since the 2001 conflict.
Rama spoke as Macedonia, struggling with a deep crisis, was additionally shaken by a deadly shooting earlier this month between police and ethnic Albanian rebel. The violence in the northern town of Kumanovo left 18 people dead, including eight police officers.
Skopje labelled the gunmen "terrorists" and claimed they were planning to attack Macedonia's state institutions.
Police arrested 30 alleged gunmen of ethnic Albanian origin, including 18 from Kosovo, and charged them with terrorism. After the violence some voices were to be heard within Macedonia's ethnic Albanian community claiming that their rights agreed upon the peace deal were not fully implemented.
Rama estimated Wednesday that during the Kumanovo incidents "words terrorism and Albanians were unfortunately associated ... in a dangerous attempt to give terrorism an ethnic suffix and to an ethnicity a harmful prefix."
The violence in Kumanovo marked the worst unrest in the former Yugoslav republic since its 2001 conflict, raising fears of fresh ethnic unrest.
Macedonia aspires to join both EU and NATO but its bid was hampered due to opposition from Greece that denies its neighbour the right to use the name Macedonia, arguing it implies a claim on the northern Greek region of the same name.
Albania joined NATO in 2009. The Alliance's next summit is due next year in Poland.