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North Macedonia on Saturday marked the birthday of a 19th century revolutionary amid tight security in the capital of Skopje due to fears of clashes between opposing nationalist groups from North Macedonia and Bulgaria.
Both countries have claims on the historic figure, Gotse Delchev, who opposed Ottoman rule in the Balkans that ended in the early 20th century. The commemoration marks 151 years since the birth.
North Macedonia’s authorities say the commemoration is a “high security risk.”
Police blocked streets, set up metal fences and conducted thorough checks in the area around the 16th century Orthodox Church “Sveti Spas” in downtown Skopje, where Delchev is buried.
Helicopters and drones buzzed overhead, and inspections were carried out at border crossings between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Tensions rose as hundreds of Bulgarians were forced to wait for a couple of hours at Deve Bair border crossing on the Macedonian side. Border officials blamed a computer system crash for the delay.
Police said in a statement that three Bulgarians have been detained for “disturbing the public order.”
Bulgarian Interior minister Ivan Demerdzhiev, who led the official delegation, called the measures adopted by Macedonian police draconian.
“There is no reason for provocations. We need to move forward ... a united Europe requires stability," Demerdzhiev said. "We did not come here to provoke, but to show respect. We are neighbors and good neighborliness should continue.”
North Macedonia and Bulgaria are at odds over issues such as historic figures, ethnic minorities, language and national identity. Bulgaria had held up its neighbor’s bid to join the European Union, but dropped its opposition to accession talks last year after receiving a pledge on minority rights.