By LLAZAR SEMINI, Associated Press Jan 21, 2011
TIRANA, Albania – Thousands of people held an anti-government
demonstration in Albania's capital on Friday, and at least three people
were killed and scores wounded as police using tear gas, rubber bullets
and water cannons clashed with the protesters.
At least 15 police vehicles were overturned and burned by the more than
20,000 people who took part in the largest and most violent protest that
Tirana had seen in years.
"Get Out! Get Out!" the demonstrators shouted as they battled the riot
police outside Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha's office in the
capital. Other protesters carried red-and-black Albanian flags.
Berisha accused the opposition Socialists, who called the protest, of
trying to overthrow the government with a "Tunisian-style" demonstration —
referring to the rioting that just toppled Tunisia's government.
Berisha, who said he was at his office when the protest erupted, rejected
opposition demands for early elections. He also alleged that the
demonstrators included "gangs of criminals, bandits, traffickers and
Hundreds of riot police and national guard officers swept through the
center of the capital, beating protesters with batons and detaining dozens
of youths. By Friday night, most of the demonstrators had left the city's
Health officials said at least three people were shot and killed, and
authorities said more than 130 police and demonstrators were injured.
Tensions have been mounting for months between Albania's government and
the Socialists, and they rose sharply this week when the country's deputy
prime minister, Ilir Meta, resigned amid an alleged corruption scandal.
The United States and the European Union both appealed for calm in Albania.
"We deplore that today's event has spiraled into violence. We urgently
appeal to all political forces to call for calm and refrain from
provocation," an EU said in a statement.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley urged Albanian
politicians to tone down their inflammatory rhetoric.
"We condemn the violence today in Albania," he said. "The use of
provocative rhetoric and the suggestion or tolerance of any form of
violence is a deep disservice to the people Albania. They deserve better."
Neighboring Greece also expressed concern, describing the deadly protests
as a "blow to democracy."
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 believed to be widespread and unemployment is high.
The corruption scandal began after a private TV station aired a video
allegedly showing Meta asking a colleague to influence the awarding of a
contract to build a power station.
The Socialists also have accused Berisha's conservative Democratic Party
of rigging Albania's 2009 election, which it won by a narrow margin.
The next election is scheduled in 2013.
But opposition leader Edi Rama said the public may not be willing to wait.
"We shall continue our struggle in a determined way because the way out is
clear: either a free Albania for all, or keep the people subdued under the
boot of barbaric power," he said.
"The world should see, the community of democratic countries should see,
Europe should see, everyone should see what is happening."
Referring Friday's fatalities, he said: They protested "for a better
Albania and lost their lives for an Albania we are forced to live with but
that we shall definitely change."
AP Television's Nebi Qena in Tirana, Raf Casert in Belgium and Matt Lee in
Washington contributed to this report.