N. Macedonia handball fans rebuked for 'hate speech'

Skopje (Republic of North Macedonia) (AFP) –


North Macedonia handball fans were rebuked Monday for chanting anti-Albanian "hate speech" during celebrations after a Skopje club was crowned European Champions over the weekend.

The Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO, said it had received numerous reports of racist insults from fans after their Vardar club took home the trophy in Cologne on Sunday.

Most of the abuse was directed at ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of the Balkan state's mainly Slav population, it said. The mainly Muslim minority is a frequent target of nationalists and has long complained of discrimination.

Some fans chanted "Gas chamber" and called for a "pure Macedonia", the NGO said.

Later on Monday, tens of thousands of people turned out to welcome the team's double-decker bus as it drove from the airport to Skopje's main square, in one of the biggest public gatherings in recent years for the small country of 2.1 million.

Fans lit flares and waved the country's flag and other nationalist symbols as the bus entered Skopje's centre and the players took to a stage.

At least one group of around 50 fans at the airport were heard chanting "A dead Albanian is a good Albanian".

The interior ministry had earlier urged citizens "not to use insulting slogans or chants, or sing songs that spread hate speech" at the event.

Clips on social media from Sunday showed fans singing: "Let them know, the evil 'shiptars' (a deragatory term for Albanians), that the name Macedonia will never die."

Those lyrics were a reference to the recent government move adding "North" to the country's name -- a change that ended a long-running dispute with neighbouring Greece but enraged nationalists at home.

The change was spearheaded by the Social Democrat-led government which, with support from minority Albanian parties, ousted a nationalist administration in 2017.

After clinching the handball trophy in Cologne, Germany, on Sunday, the club's captain Stojance Stoilov interrupted an interviewer to say: "I just want to make a correction. My country's name is the Republic of Macedonia."

The comment was applauded by nationalists, particularly on social media.

On Monday evening, Stoilov and the crowd also chanted: "Never North, only Macedonia".

The victory for Vardar earned the multi-sport club founded in 1961 its second handball European Champions trophy.