Albanian PM in hiding after riots hit HQ

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The Independent Online
THE ALBANIAN government declared yesterday that it had defeated an attempted coup by opposition supporters and had taken back control of the streets of the capital.

Tension remained high in Tirana, and the government was meeting at a secret location after two days of protests in which its headquarters were the target of rioting mobs.

Large numbers of armed police were in the centre of the city for a demonstration by the opposition Democratic Party, which is led by Albania's former President, Sali Berisha.

Despite a ban, about 3,000 of Mr Berisha's supporters rallied in the main Tirana square. He announced a new rally today unless the Prime Minister, Fatos Nano, resigned.

"Now it's up to the Albanian political parties and the Albanian people to defend the values of democracy," Mr Berisha said. "I'm sure that people don't want violence. But a worse thing is dictatorship."

In a televised address, the Prime Minister said the government's patience was running out and it would not "wait endlessly for all weapons to be taken out" of the headquarters of his rival, Mr Berisha.

On Monday, armed rioters seized tanks from the security forces, took over the state television building and invaded the parliament. The authorities were taking no chances with yesterday's protest. An interior ministry statement said police would shoot "without warning" at the first sign of trouble. The protest passed off peacefully.

Mr Berisha has called repeatedly for the government to resign, accusing the Prime Minister of being behind the murder at the weekend of Azem Hajdari, one of the Democratic Party's leading politicians.

The Albanian foreign minister, Paskal Milo, said yesterday in a interview with BBC Radio that the leaders of the opposition demonstrations were "bandits and criminals". He added that the government was prepared to have discussions with Mr Berisha to resolve the crisis but not to share power.

However, nobody doubts Mr Berisha's determination to get back into office. His party never accepted the results of the elections that brought the Socialists to power last year.

Western diplomats fear that Albania may be in for a period of chronic instability. The Italian and German foreign ministers, Lamberto Dini and Klaus Kinkel, sent a joint proposal yesterday to Austria, which holds the EU presidency, recommending an international police force be sent in and that EU funds to Albania be increased.

An international police mission would back up Albanian security forces, the statement said, and could help to stem the flow of weapons over the border into the Serb-ruled province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are fighting for independence.