Reuters International

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov shake hands with Croatian and Slovenian police officers deployed at Macedonian south border with Greece in Gevgelija, Macedonia, April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

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By Kole Casule

SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia's president pardoned 56 government and opposition figures on Wednesday in a wiretapping scandal despite protests against the move at home and abroad, with the United States warning it could protect "corrupt politicians".

A day after causing uproar in Macedonia by announcing he planned a blanket amnesty over the affair, President Gjorge Ivanov published notices in Macedonia's official gazette exempting former prime minister Nikola Gruevski - a political ally - and other prominent politicians from prosecution.

Also pardoned were opposition leader Zoran Zaev, who revealed the existence of the recordings last year, and former security service official Zoran Verusevski, who Gruevski accused of giving the wiretaps to Zaev in an attempt to bring down his government.

Thousands of opposition supporters angry at Ivanov's action took to the streets of the capital Skopje on Wednesday evening.

Some broke windows at a city centre office occasionally used by Ivanov, went inside and took out furniture which they tried to set on fire, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. They also broke windows at the nearby Ministry of Justice.

Demonstrators scuffled with riot police, threw stones and eggs at government buildings and set off flares before police used batons to disperse the crowd.

A police source said there had been some injuries and arrests but could not immediately say how many.

A rival demonstration by several thousand government supporters ended peacefully.

Macedonia, a poor Balkan country of two million people on the front line of Europe's refugee crisis, has been in turmoil since Zaev accused Gruevski and his counter-intelligence chief, Saso Mijalkov, in February last year of orchestrating the wiretapping of more than 20,000 people.

The opposition said the phone-taps exposed government control over journalists, judges, public sector recruitment and the manipulation of elections in Macedonia, which aspires to join both the European Union and NATO.

Zaev branded Ivanov's action a "coup d'etat" on Tuesday and demanded his resignation, while the EU said the move appeared contrary to the rule of law.

Thirty-seven opposition legislators signed a petition on Wednesday demanding a parliamentary inquiry into Ivanov's action but the assembly was dissolved last week pending elections and the speaker said there were no grounds to recall it.

Ivanov explained his move on Tuesday by saying the scandal had reduced Macedonian politics to a crippling competition of criminal investigations and charges, and that it had become "so tangled that nobody can untangle it".

U.S. Ambassador Jess Baily joined foreign criticism of Ivanov's action, saying on Twitter: "A blanket pardon without due process protects corrupt politicians and their associates. Let the special prosecutor and courts do their jobs."

In Washington, the U.S. State Department urged Ivanov on Wednesday to reconsider his decision so as to ensure "justice for the people of Macedonia".

The EU commissioner in charge of relations with would-be member states, Johannes Hahn, said on Tuesday he doubted whether credible elections were possible following Ivanov's decision. The opposition had already pledged to boycott the election.

Ali Ahmeti, head of the Democratic Union for Integration party which forms part of the ruling coalition, called on Ivanov to withdraw his decision, saying it violated an EU-brokered deal reached last year to try to end the crisis.

Under that accord, a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the wiretap revelations and Gruevski agreed to an early election, expected in June.

(Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Adrian Croft; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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