Albania government quits after riots

Beset by weeks of violent street protests, road blockades, student hunger strikes and the threat of serious armed conflict, Albania's corrupt and unpopular government was finally forced to resign last night at the instigation of the country's president, Sali Berisha.

Mr Berisha himself announced the dismissal of Prime Minister Aleksander Meksi and his cabinet on state television, promising at least a degree of cross-party dialogue in appointing a successor administration. With the country's second city, Vlora, recovering from unprecedented gun battles between demonstrators and the special security police on Friday night in which nine people were reported killed, Mr Berisha gave the impression of acting out of panic rather than having any clear idea of how to resolve the ever-deepening crisis.

While demonstrators in Vlora, some wielding submachine guns, gathered in their thousands yesterday to mourn three victims of the violence there, a crowd of 6,000 stormed a police station in the capital, Tirana. Roadblocks prevented security forces from reaching many towns and cities in the south of the country and there were student demonstrations in a number of different locations.

Albanians are furious at the collapse of a string of pyramid investment schemes, which they say the outgoing government propped up with money from illegal drugs, arms and petrol smuggling, and feel deep resentment at the increasing autocracy of Mr Berisha's rule. There have been clashes with police in several towns, involving orgies of burning, looting and physical violence.

In Vlora, stronghold of the Albanian mafia, the state was driven out by rioting two weeks ago and the city has been the centre of anti-government ferment ever since.

The army, police and special forces have all failed to break the resolve of the protesters who have marched in their thousands every day.

On Friday, plainclothes men believed to belong to the Shik security police swooped on the university where more than 40 students are on hunger strike and ended up stabbing a 17-year-old protester.

In retaliation, the citizens of Vlora descended on the Shik building and opened fire. A full pitched battle was soon in progress. By daylight yesterday, the building had been reduced to a burned-out shell. Mr Berisha is due to be reappointed president for another five years in parliament tomorrow, but it is far from clear whether he will be able to survive the crisis.

His Democratic Party has flouted nearly every democratic rule, from purges of dissidents to the rigging of last May's general election.

Western embassies, meanwhile, still hope that cross-party dialogue can save Albania from descending into total anarchy. After years of support, they have become vocal over recent weeks in their criticism of Mr Berisha and his ruling order.

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