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Macedonia mourns former president

Macedonians have marked a national day of mourning for Kiro Gligorov, their first democratically elected president and the man who shepherded the tiny Balkan nation through a bloodless secession from the former Yugoslavia.

Mr Gligorov, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 1995, was buried in his family's grave in the capital of Skopje. About 100 people took part in the private, non-religious ceremony.

Macedonian flags flew at half-mast, sporting events were cancelled and public radio suspended normal programming and was playing only classical music.

The former president, 94, died on January 1 in his sleep at his home in Skopje and his death was announced the following day. To many Macedonians, Mr Gligorov came to be considered the "father of the nation".

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Mr Gligorov as a "patriot and true statesman", while Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski paid tribute to the former president's historic role in the country's independence.

"Kiro Gligorov will be remembered as a man and politician who had serious merit and contributions to the liberation and the creation, development and international recognition of Macedonia," Gruevski said in condolences to Mr Gligorov's family.

Mr Gligorov became president of Macedonia in January 1991 when it was still a Yugoslav republic. He led his countrymen through a referendum in which they voted for independence, and the territory of 2.1 million people became the only republic to secede from Yugoslavia without a war.

"The life of Kiro Gligorov is the history of the Macedonian state," current president Gjorge Ivanov said during a special parliamentary session. "The Macedonian people are proud of him."

Mr Gligorov served two consecutive presidential terms, leading the nation from January 1991 to November 1999. He narrowly survived an assassination attempt that cost him an eye in October 1995, when a bomb targeted his car as he headed to work. The bombing killed his driver and a bystander and left him with severe head injuries. Mr Gligorov emerged from a roughly four-month hospital stay with deep facial scars. No suspects were ever arrested, and the investigation has made little headway since then.

The early period of Gligorov's presidency was overshadowed by a bitter dispute with southern neighbour Greece over the newly independent nation's name - a dispute that continues to this day. Athens objects to the use of the name Macedonia, saying it implied territorial ambitions on its own northern province of the same name.

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