Tributes pour in for Macedonian president

Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina - The United Nations and politicians across Europe rushed to offer condolences on Thursday for the death of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, describing him a champion of stability in the war-torn Balkans.

Trajkovski, 47, Macedonia's president since 1999, was killed on Thursday along with several of his closest aides when their plane crashed in thick fog in southern Bosnia en route to an investment conference in Mostar.

The top UN official in Kosovo, Harri Holkeri, expressed "deep shock and sorrow" but hoped Macedonia would "find the strength to come through this difficult period."

"President Trajkovski was a great man, a man of passion, a man who moved his country forward, not only (on the path of) reform but also to get it as close as possible to Europe," European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.

The president's death came on the day that Macedonia, now among a clutch of former Yugoslav republics lining up to join the European Union, presented its application to join the bloc.

Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission - the EU's executive arm - praised Trajkovski for seeking to bring his country into the EU fold. "(He was) the architect and the guarantor of the European vocation of his country and certainly its best advocate with the international community," Prodi said.

European Parliament president Pat Cox described Trajkovski as a "true European."

Governments in the Balkan region were also quick to praise a man who had sought to bring peace to his unstable country and region.

Svetozar Marovic, president of northern neighbour Serbia-Montenegro, said Trajkovski "devotedly worked on strengthening peace, stability and cooperation in the Balkans".

"His death is a huge loss for Macedonia, but also for all of us who have worked with him on building up new confidence and cooperation in our region," Marovic said.

Dragan Covic, a member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, said: "We have lost one of our great friends. Nothing can compensate for that loss."

The international High Representative to Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, told a press conference in Mostar that Trajkovski's death was a loss for the whole Balkan region as a whole, which was "not so rich in powerful, charismatic and courageous leaders."

"President Trajkovski worked tirelessly for peace to take his young country towards democracy in Europe and to stabilise the southeast of Europe following the break-up of Yugoslavia," Ashdown said.

Croatian President Stipe Mesic warned, however, that Trajkovski's death would have "political consequences" in the Balkans. He did not elaborate.

Greek Foreign Minister Tassos Yannitsis, whose country borders southern Macedonia, said the president's death was a "heavy loss for his country and for the Balkan region".

In eastern neighbour Bulgaria, parliament was closed for the day as a mark of respect for Trajkovski, who was described by parliamentary speaker Ognian Guerdjikov as "the man who saved Macedonia from war".

Nato secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, for his part, hailed Trajkovski as a "courageous statesman", highlighting his key role in preventing all-out ethnic war in his country in 2001.

Nato troops moved into Macedonia in 2001 after a seven-month conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and government troops which claimed up to 150 lives and nearly plunged the country into a full-scale civil war.

"In difficult circumstances, and in the face of opposition from many, he guided the peace process in (Macedonia) and was instrumental in the signature and implementation of the Ohrid Agreement which re-established peace and stability," De Hoop Scheffer said.

He was referring to an accord cosponsored by Nato and the EU, which was brokered in August 2001 to stem ethnic strife in the Balkan country.

Walter Schwimmer, secretary general of the 45-member Council of Europe, said the death of Trajkovski, "a man of peace and dialogue", was "a great loss for his country and for Europe, where he was appreciated as one of the most harmonious leaders in the Balkans".

Generous tributes also poured in from western capitals.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed condolences over the "tragic death" and his foreign minister Jack Straw said that thanks to Trajkovski's efforts, Macedonia was "firmly on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration".

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said Trajkovski would be remembered as "a great European political figure", while Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi hailed his "precious contribution to ethnic cohabitation in the Balkans".

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said: "He was an advocate of an open and multi-ethnic society. His actions were exemplary not only for the citizens of (his) country but also for the entire region. I am convinced that the Macedonian government will continue to hold to them in the future."

Elsewhere in Europe, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer called Trajkovski "a special leader", while Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said he hoped the death "would not lead to an increase in tension in the region".

Governments in the Baltic states - which are all on course to join Nato in early April and have promised to share their experience with Macedonia to help it to join the alliance later - all sent condolences. - Sapa-AFP

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