* Opposition says PM Gruevski ordered wiretapping of 20,000 people
* Targets included journalists, political and religious leaders
* Opposition boycotting parliament since election in April 2014
By Kole Casule
SKOPJE, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Macedonia’s chief opposition figure accused Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski on Monday of wire-tapping journalists, religious and opposition leaders, deepening a scandal that has engulfed the European Union candidate country in recent weeks.
Zoran Zaev, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, told a packed news conference in Skopje Gruevski and his counter-intelligence chief, Saso Mijalkov, had orchestrated the wire-tapping of more than 20,000 people for “at least four years”.
“Gruevski and several people around him are behind this operation. The material we have shows that illegal wire-tapping was under direct orders from Saso Mijalkov. This kind of massive wire-tapping can be done only by a domestic service.”
Gruevski, who has ruled the landlocked Balkan country of 2 million people since 2006, was not available for immediate comment
Police charged Zaev on Jan. 31 with conspiring with a foreign intelligence service to topple the government.
Gruevski said Zaev had tried to blackmail him into calling a snap election during face-to-face talks last September and November. He said Zaev had threatened to use anti-government intelligence gathered with the help of a foreign spy service.
Zaev denied the charges and said the authorities were trying in vain to prevent the publication of the evidence he had.
Zaev, appearing at the news conference, played excerpts of what he said were ilegally taped conversations, some involving Zaev in talks with journalists and members of his family, others including a conversation between the current finance and interior ministers.
Leaders of ethnic Albanian political parties were also wire-tapped, Zaev said.
“We call on the international community to carefully follow what we publish and to take an active part in this process,” Zaev said.
Zaev’s Social Democrats have been boycotting parliament for nine months, after alleging fraud in a parliamentary election last April that gave Gruevski a third straight term in office.
For months, Zaev had been threatening to publish what he said was incendiary evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Gruevski government, including accusations he said could harm ethnic relations in Macedonia.
Macedonia wants to join NATO and the European Union but progress has been stalled by a dispute with neighbouring Greece over Macedonia’s name.
The country narrowly avoided civil war in 2001 in clashes between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. Ethnic Albanians make up at least 25 percent of the population and a party of former guerrillas shares power with Gruevski.
Reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic