Berisha leaves rally amid security fears


THE Albanian President, Mr Sali Berisha, poised to address a crowd of cheering right-wing supporters, quit Tirana's main square yesterday surrounded by security guards amid fears for his safety.

Mr Berisha had made his way on foot from the town hall through a crowd of 6,000 sympathisers towards the Palace of Culture, damaged on Sunday in a clash between protesters and police.

As the crowd pressed in towards Mr Berisha, security guards apparently fearing the situation could get out of control rushed him up the steps of the Palace of Culture and inside the building now used mainly as a bingo hall.

The expectant throng shouted "We want Berisha" as workers rigged up a sound system for the president's speech.

But the mayor of Tirana instead appeared to tell supporters to disperse peacefully, indicating the president had left. Within minutes, roads around the square were reopened to the bustling traffic of cars and horse-drawn carts.

Mr Berisha's Democrats, in an apparent bid to avoid any escalation of the violence which has hit Albania since the collapse of pyramid investment schemes, dropped their original plans to stage the protest outside opposition Socialist Party headquarters.

Three cordons of riot police stood in front of the Socialist headquarters, located across from the Palace of Culture, in case the crowd moved towards the rival party building. There was no trouble and the police later left.

The Democrats, who won a huge victory in controversial elections last May boycotted by the Socialists, are seeking to deflate growing anger about the pyramid schemes into which thousands sank their savings.

Protests have swept the Balkan state in nearly three weeks as investors face the prospect of losing all their money.

Economists estimate that more than $1 billion may have been plunged into the high-yielding pyramid schemes, which mushroomed across Albania after the fall of the hardline communist regime in 1990.

The International Monetary Fund has offered to help the Albanian government overcome the financial crisis.

Scores of people were hurt at a demonstration in Skanderbeg Square on Sunday and protesters set fire to government buildings and Democratic Party offices. The Democrats have accused the Socialists, former communists, of inciting the unrest.

While presidential aides played down Mr Berisha's decision to quit the square, witnsses believed security chiefs had genuinely, feared for his safety.

One witness in the crowd, who stood near the president as he made his approach into the square, said he heard shouts in the crowd saying "This is an illegal protest". City authorities demand three days' advance warning before a gathering can take place in Skanderbeg Square.

. In Sofia, meanwhile, Bulgaria's main trade unions called for a general strike from today to push for snap elections and prevent a new government being formed by Interior Minister Nikolai Dobrev.

Their call demand came within hours of Mr Dobrev's designation by conservative President Petar Stoyanov, radio reports said. Mr Stoyanov chose the interior minister to form a government after the ruling Socialist Party, former communists, turned down his proposal to defuse a political crisis by holding early elections in May.