Defeated Berisha's supporters cling to gun-power

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The Independent Online
Die-hard supporters of Albania's President Sali Berisha vented their frustration over the ruling Democratic Party's crushing electoral defeat yesterday with an intimidatory show of force around Tirana. They showed special venom for foreign journalists in the capital by barging into news conferences with guns and throwing well-aimed punches.

An Italian cameraman was beaten outside the Democratic Party's headquarters on Monday night and had his equipment stolen, as party faithful hurled accusations of bias at the foreign press. An observer for Human Rights Watch who had been critical of the Berisha regime, Fred Abrahams, was slapped and kicked during a news conference yesterday given by two senior party figures, Genc Pollo and Tritan Shehu.

Joanna Robertson, a reporter for the BBC and the Guardian, was fired at several times by an unidentified man emerging from a Mercedes on a beach near Durres. She escaped unharmed after the owner of a nearby restaurant, who knew her, chased the man away with blasts from his Kalashnikov.

Although President Berisha has urged his supporters to accept the election result, which handed an overwhelming victory to the opposition Socialist Party, the men with guns have managed to clear the streets a good hour before the start of curfew at 10pm.

On Monday night, men identified as members of the presidential guard drove up and down Tirana's main boulevard firing automatic weapons into the air. Another group climbed to the top of the Palace of Culture and created a cacophony of machine-gun fire and grenade explosions.

Such behaviour is being interpreted as the last gasp of an autocratic regime that knows the game is up. A number of notorious strongmen, including the police chief Agim Shehu and the head of the presidential guard, Xhahid Xhaferri, have left the country. President Berisha himself was described as looking dejected and lost by international officials who met him yesterday.

The risk of serious disruption nevertheless exists, especially during the limbo period before full election results are known. Yesterday the would-be king of Albania, Leka Zogu, gave a press conference accompanied by about 200 thugs, many of them armed, who chanted slogans and applauded as their hero complained he had been robbed of victory in Sunday's referendum on the reintroduction of the monarchy. Some of the thugs were identified as members of Mr Berisha's retinue.

Complete results are not expected until today because of delays in communication between far-flung constituencies and the central electoral commission in Tirana. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the count appeared to be conducted professionally. Latest indications suggested there would be more than 30 run-offs in the second round this Sunday, and up to 20 re-runs because of irregularities or outbreaks of violence. The Socialists still appeared to have a commanding majority, but not as big as the results announced by the party on Monday.