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EU acts at last over poll fraud in Albania

The international community finally kicked into action yesterday to pressure Albania into mending some of the damage done by last Sunday's rigged general election, warning that its relations with the outside world could suffer if the voting irregularities are not addressed.

Even the European Union unexpectedly reversed its previous policy by threatening punitive measures if President Sali Berisha does not organise a rerun of voting in constituencies where international observers reported major violations of Albania's electoral law.

The United States State Department, meanwhile, issued its second statement in three days yesterday when it expressed its "serious concerns".

A final, tougher, statement is due as early as today, according to United States officials in Tirana.

The international turnaround is a slap in the face for Mr Berisha, who had looked like getting away with the abuses and securing an overwhelming parliamentary majority for his Democratic Party.

Yesterday's international response now casts a pall over tomorrow's planned run-off round of elections in the 10 constituencies where no clear result was deemed to have emerged last time.

Nearly all Albania's opposition parties have vowed to boycott the event.

Clearly, the vote-rigging and the police brutality on the streets of Tirana that followed it were too much even for those European countries that had supported Mr Berisha every step of the way through the election campaign, including Germany.

They may also have been swayed by the behaviour of the opposition, which has refrained from holding public demonstrations in the past two days in the interests of maintaining public order.

"We were advised by the Americans that it would be in our interests to stay off the streets," explained Kastriot Islami, of the main opposition party, the Socialists.

Opposition groups have instead been advocating dialogue, including plans to set up an interim round-table government represented by all parties in the run-up to new elections.

The opposition in the former hard-line Stalinist state run by the notorious Enver Hoxha, has not given up all forms of protest, however, and yesterday a number of centrist parliamentary candidates began a three-day hunger strike.

There was no immediate reaction yesterday from Mr Berisha, who has so far insisted the elections were fair and that the country would go forward on the basis of their results.

In an interview which the President gave to the Associated Press on Thursday, he nevertheless indicated he would be willing to engage in dialogue with the opposition.

He added that he would want other parties to play an active role in Albanian public life.