Albania crises deepens after protest deaths

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The Independent Online

Albania's political crisis escalated as the government and its opposition traded blame for the deaths of three protesters during a violent demonstration against an administration accused of deeply-rooted corruption.

Arrest warrants had been issued for six officers of the National Guard, army troops under Interior Ministry command who guard government institutions and senior officials. the prosecutor general's office said.

Tensions have been mounting for months between Albania's conservative government and the main opposition Socialist Party.

They rose sharply last week when deputy prime minister Ilir Meta resigned after a private TV station aired a video that it said showed him asking a colleague to influence the awarding of a contract to build a power station.

On Friday night protesters in the capital Tirana overturned and burned police vehicles and clashed with officers who fought them with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon. Two men were fatally shot in the chest and another died of a wound to the head.

The US and the European Union have both appealed for calm.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha said the men had been killed by "bandits" within the protesters and accused the Socialist Party leader of attempting a coup.

"I am here today to tell that you were the one who organised the anti-constitutional putsch ... for which you will have to face the consequences of the law," Mr Berisha said at a news conference.

He said the demonstrators included "gangs of criminals, bandits, traffickers and terrorists" trying to overthrow the government with a "Tunisian-style" demonstration - referring to the rioting that drove out Tunisia's president this month.

Socialist leader Edi Rama accused Mr Berisha of being the "political orchestrator" of the deaths and called for the arrest of interior minister Lulzim Basha.

In addition to fuelling outrage over corruption, the Socialists have accused Mr Berisha's Democratic Party of rigging Albania's 2009 election, in which it was declared the winner by a narrow margin.

The next election is scheduled in 2013, but for months the opposition has been calling for new polls to be held sooner.

US ambassador in Tirana Alexander Arvizu said he had told Albanian politicians on both sides that the violence was neither necessary nor inevitable.

"It could have been avoided. It must be prevented from happening again for the sake of all Albanians," he said.

"What Albania desperately needs at this moment is political leadership. We have repeatedly urged Albania's political leaders to search for compromise. It's time to take a deep breath, repair the damage and begin the process of recovery."

Mr Arvizu, together with EU ambassador Ettore Sequi and British ambassador Fiona McIlwham, met Albanian president Bamir Topi to stress that the "return of dialogue, respect of institutions, maturity and equilibrium is of a vital importance".

Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Ambassador Eugen Wollfarth also urged that "all national leaders, both in government and in opposition, should act constructively and show leadership in restoring public and political confidence so that the country again can focus on its national strategic goals".

The demonstration in the centre of Tirana began with about 20,000 people, but organisers claimed it swelled to up to 300,000. The protest quickly turned violent, with people pelting police with banners, umbrellas, eggs and stones.

Police said 113 people were arrested on charges of violence against police and for destroying their vehicles.

The Socialists vowed to continue the anti-government protests, but did not hold any demonstrations yesterday, when the three people killed were buried.

Mr Berisha invited Albanians to a peaceful rally against violence next Wednesday. The government also awarded a month's salary to all National Guard officers and four months' salary to those injured in Friday's violence.

Albania is one of Europe's poorest countries. For nearly 50 years, the mountainous country of 3.2 million people was ruled by xenophobic communists who banned contact with the outside world. That regime was toppled in a student-led revolt in 1990.

The nation descended into chaos seven years later following the collapse of popular investment schemes, requiring an international military mission to restore order.

Albania is now a Nato member and seeks to join the 27-nation EU, but corruption is widespread and unemployment high.