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Crisis escalates in Albania as opposition parties swap blame

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-01-24

A political crisis escalated in Albania as the government and the opposition traded blame for the deaths of three protests during a violent demonstration against the state's deeply-rooted corruption.

AP - A political crisis has escalated in Albania 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.

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. the Prosecutor General’s office said Saturday.

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 U.S. and the European Union have both appealed for calm.

The men had been killed by “bandits” within the protesters and accused

the leader of the main opposition Socialist Party of attempting a coup, Prime Minister Sali Berisha said at a news conference.

“I am here today to tell that you were the one who organized 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 fueling 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.

U.S. Ambassador in Tirana Alexander Arvizu said he had told Albanian politicians on both sides that the violence “was not necessary. Nor was it inevitable. It could have been avoided. It must be prevented from happening again, for the sake of all Albanians.”

“What Albania desperately needs at this moment is political leadership. We have repeatedly urged Albania’s political leaders to search for compromise,” he said at a news conference. “It’s time to take a deep breath, repair the damage and begin the process of recovery.”

Arvizu, together with EU Ambassador Ettore Sequi and British Ambassador Fiona McIlwham, met with Albanian President Bamir Topi to stress that the “return of dialogue, respect of institutions, maturity and equilibrium is of a vital importance.”

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Ambassador Eugen Wollfarth also urged that “all national leaders, both in government and in opposition, should act constructively and show leadership in restoring public and political confidence so that the country again can focus on its national strategic goals.”

The demonstration in the center of Albania’s capital, Tirana, began with about 20,000 people, but organizers 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.

Berisha invited Albanians to come next Wednesday to a peaceful rally against violence. The government also awarded a month’s salary to all National Guard officers and four months’ salary to those injured in Friday’s violence.

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.

Date created : 2011-01-23