Crisis escalates in Albania after protest deaths

AP , Saturday 22 Jan 2011

Albania's burgeoning political crisis escalated following the deaths of three protesters, as the government clamps down on demonstrators, fearing a 'Tunisia-style' revolution

Albanian protest
In this photo taken on Friday 21 Jan. 2011 two people, seen bottom left and top right, lie dead during an opposition demonstration in Tirana, Albania. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)

A political crisis escalated in Albania on Saturday as the government and the opposition traded blame for the deaths of three protests during a violent demonstration against an administration accused of deeply rooted corruption.

The Prosecutor General's office said arrest warrants had been issued for six officers of the National Guard, army troops under Interior Ministry command who guard government institutions and senior officials.

Tensions have been mounting for months between Albania's conservative government and the main opposition Socialist Party. They rose sharply last week when Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta resigned after a private TV station aired a video that it said showed him asking a colleague to influence the awarding of a contract to build a power station.

On Friday night, protesters overturned and burned police vehicles Friday night and clashed with officers who fought them off with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

Two men were fatally shot in the chest and another died of a wound to the head.

The United States and the European Union have both appealed for calm.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha said at a press conference the men had been killed by "bandits" within the protesters and accused the leader of the main opposition Socialist Party of attempting a coup.

"I am here today to tell that you were the one who organised the anti-constitutional putsch ... for which you will have to face the consequences of the law," Berisha said.

He charged that the demonstrators included "gangs of criminals, bandits, traffickers and terrorists" trying to overthrow the government with a "Tunisian-style" demonstration, referring to the rioting that drove out Tunisia's president this month.

Socialist Party leader Edi Rama accused Berisha of being the "political orchestrator" of the deaths and he called for the arrest of Interior Minister Lulzim Basha.

In addition to fuelling outrage over corruption, the Socialists have accused Berisha's Democratic Party of rigging Albania's 2009 election, in which it was declared the winner by a narrow margin. The next election is scheduled in 2013, but the opposition has been calling for months for new polls to be held sooner.

The demonstration in the centre of Albania's capital, Tirana, began with about 20,000 people, but organisers claimed it swelled to up to 300,000. Police did not give any figures. The protest quickly turned violent, with people pelting police with banners, umbrellas, eggs and stones.

Police said 113 people were arrested on charges of violence against police and for destroying their vehicles.

The Socialists vowed to continue the anti-government protests, but said they would not hold any demonstrations on Saturday, when the three people killed were to be buried.

Scores of people led by Socialist leaders laid flowers and lit candles where two people were killed.

Albania is one of Europe's poorest countries. For nearly 50 years, the mountainous country of 3.2 million people was ruled by xenophobic Communists who banned contact with the outside world. That regime was toppled in a student-led revolt in 1990.

The nation descended into chaos seven years later following the collapse of popular investment schemes, requiring an international military mission to restore order.

Albania is now a NATO member and seeks to join the 27-nation EU, but corruption is widespread and unemployment is high.

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