Masked troops patrol Tirana as parliament moves against `coup' leader

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The Independent Online
THE ALBANIAN parliament voted by an overwhelming majority yesterday to lift the immunity from prosecution of the opposition party leader, Sali Berisha. The move opens the way for his arrest on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

As parliament met, troops wearing black ski-masks patrolled the capital, Tirana, in armoured vehicles, and special forces soldiers joined extra police guards outside government buildings.

Security was stepped up for a "National Day of Protest" called by Mr Berisha for yesterday, but only a few thousand of his Democratic Party supporters gathered in Central Square in the capital and the event passed off peacefully.

Sources within the governing Socialist Party said that an arrest was not imminent, easing international fears that the opposition leader's detention could spark more rioting.

Earlier this week, armed rioters loyal to the Democratic Party seized the state television and parliament buildings and attacked the government's headquarters, sending the Prime Minister, Fatos Nano, briefly into hiding.

The vote in parliament signalled that the government is determined to press ahead with legal moves against Mr Berisha in spite of intense pressure by Western governments.

Mr Berisha could face life imprisonment, or the death sentence, if he is convicted of organising what the authorities describe as an attempted coup.

His enemies are already writing his political obituary, saying that he gambled on the government's inability to maintain order and that he lost when it managed to hang on to power, if only just.

At a news conference, Mr Berisha appeared stoical, saying he would continue to fight the government from jail if it was necessary.

"I am ready to accept any sacrifice," he said. "I am very proud to face them in whatever position."

Parliament voted 108-0 to lift Mr Berisha's immunity. Forty-two delegates, including all those from Mr Berisha's Democratic Party, were absent. The Democrats won 28 of the 155 parliamentary seats in the June 1997 election but have rarely attended any sessions.

A joint Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Council of Europe delegation arrives in Tirana today. Diplomats said the focus of international efforts has switched from trying to avoid the arrest of Mr Berisha to putting in place an agreement between political parties to make any such move irrelevant.