US, Europe condemn violence in Albania opposition rallies
TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Anti-government protesters in Albania hurled gasoline grenades and flares at riot police in front of the main government building and national police headquarters Monday, hours after U.S. diplomats and European Union lawmakers appealed for order and calm.
Thousands of demonstrators, many holding umbrellas, marched in driving rain that at times mixed with clouds of white smoke from flares. Police officers did not respond.
“It is a march of protest against the illegitimate government,” said Lulzim Basha, leader of the main opposition center-right Democratic Party.
The march route would pass five locations “symbolizing the institutions captured” by the government, Basha said: the prime minister’s office, the national police headquarters, the parliament building, the Interior Ministry and the Tirana city police department.
Opposition supporters marched to each destination as planned, hurling Molotov cocktails, flares, firecrackers and other objects, and breaking windows of the police buildings.
Police kept a low profile, posting few visible officers in front of the buildings. One police officer was injured at national police headquarters, according to a police statement.
Opposition parties have held protests since mid-February, accusing government officials of corruption and of stealing votes in the parliamentary election two years ago. They are demanding an early election and a temporary government put in place to run Albania until then.
Opposition lawmakers relinquished their seats in parliament in protest, though many vacancies ultimately were filled by other opposition candidates. The governing Socialists have 74 seats in the 140-seat parliament.
Protests over the weekend also turned hostile, with opposition supporters showering police officers with firebombs while police responded with tear gas. Injuries were reported on both sides.
Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama denounced the violent behavior of protesters, saying “Albania is damaged.”
Before Monday’s protest, the Interior Ministry said that the opposition would “try to repeat the same acts of violence.”
But the Democratic Party accused the government of trying to stir up “confrontation, conflict and fear among citizens.”
“Today we showed there is no power on earth to stop us in our cause for free and fair elections,” Basha said at the end of Monday’s march.
A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Tirana called on opposition leaders to “ensure that all future public protests are orderly and peaceful” and to “engage in a constructive dialogue aimed at bringing an end to the political impasse.”
“Violent demonstrations are damaging Albania’s democratic reform efforts and the country’s prospects for moving forward on the EU path,” the embassy statement said.
European Union lawmakers also called on Albanians “to restrain from all forms of violence” because the recent violence “could give the wrong impression that Albania is not ready for the opening of the accession negotiations in June this year.”
Albania expects to hear in June whether the EU will grant its request to launch full membership negotiations.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denounced the alleged “attempted intimidation” directed at the OSCE’s presence in Albania. On Sunday, threatening words were written at the building where the OSCE ambassador in Tirana lives.
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