Macedonia charges 10 spies in wiretapping scandal

In February 2015, former premier Nikola Gruevski (pictured) was accused of orchestrating the wiretapping of thousands of people, which 10 Macedonian spies were charged for on November 18, 2016 (AFP Photo/Robert Atanasovski)

Skopje (AFP) - Ten Macedonian intelligence officers, including senior spies, have been charged with wiretapping thousands of people in a scandal that plunged the country into political crisis last year, prosecutors said Friday.

The charges were announced shortly before Macedonia goes to the polls in a snap election on December 11 that was triggered by the resignation of the prime minister over his alleged involvement in the affair.

Conservative former premier Nikola Gruevski was accused in February 2015 by the main opposition Social Democratic party of orchestrating the wiretapping of thousands of people, including politicians, journalists and religious leaders.

The tapes of the conversations appeared to reveal corruption among high-ranking officials, including Gruevski, who was accused of accepting a 20-million-euro ($22-million) bribe from Chinese firms to grant them motorway construction concessions.

"Ten former and current employees of the Security and Counterespionage Agency, holding either managerial or lower positions, were charged with abusing their position in the agency," Fatime Fetai of the special prosecutor's office told reporters.

Prosecutors say 20,000 people were caught in the illegal wiretapping by the agency which monitored nearly 6,000 telephone numbers from 2008 to 2015.

After a wave of demonstrations, Gruevski resigned in January this year following an EU-brokered deal with the opposition, paving the wave for snap elections.

Gruevski's right-wing VMRO-DPMNE has ruled Macedonia in a coalition with the main ethnic Albanian party since 2006.

He plans to run again in December and could form a government again if his party wins, although analysts say he may leave the post of prime minister to another VMRO-DPMNE official.

Macedonia obtained European Union candidate status in 2005, but has yet to begin membership talks.