Soldiers deployed in Tirana as protests grow

 

PRESIDENT Sali Berisha of Albania, facing his biggest crisis since winning power in 1992, turned to the army to restore order after protesters clashed with riot police in the capital and wreaked destruction in the south.

Rage over collapsing savings schemes in which Albanians have poured millions of dollars turned to violence as demonstrators around the Balkan state stoned police and set fire to government buildings in mounting protests against the ruling right wing Democrats.

Armed troops were already on alert in Tirana late yesterday, guarding ministries, the central bank and other strategic points.

The Interior Ministry said around 84 police officers were injured, some seriously, in the weekend clashes. About 30 people were arrested, but there were no official figures for the number of protesters hurt.

A fresh demonstration was scheduled for today in the northern city of Shkoder, where authorities called for a peaceful protest. "Considering the events of the past few days . . . we urge the population of Shkoder to distance itself from violent acts," the city council said in a statement.

Albania's parliament, sitting, for the first time on a Sunday since the Democrats swept to power in a 1992 general election, voted at an emergency session to give Mr Berisha the power to deploy troops to unblock roads and guard government buildings.

Thousands of angry demonstrators clashed with ranks of police who lashed out with batons to try to disperse a crowd of around 30,000 in central Tirana.

Police fired their pistols in the air over the ear shattering din of shouts and screams as a hard core of around 3,000 protesters tried to advance towards parliament, hurling stones through windows and glass doors of buildings bordering central Skanderbeg Square.

Albanian state media reported disturbances in 13 other towns. Violence erupted in Vlore, 150 km south of the capital, when protesters forced their way past police cordons and set fire to the town hall.

Administrative buildings of the state owned oil company, Albpetrol, were engulfed in flames in the southern town of Patos, according to a company official speaking from the neighbouring town of Fier.

"Down with Berisha!", "Down with Meksi!", "Down with the thieves!", demonstrators in Tirana shouted before the clashes.

The crowd later dispersed. One of Tirana's main hospitals said it had treated seven demonstrators - and seven police officers.

Three protesters remained in hospital, one of them in intensive care, a duty doctor said.

The Tirana demonstration was called by opposition party leaders sensing the political tide was turning against the ruling Democrats over their handling of the investment schemes.

Ten national savings schemes were in operation in Albania, and protests began to spread two weeks ago when two of them were declared bankrupt, infuriating investors who fear being left penniless.

Some Albanians, unused to the ways of a free market, sold their homes, farms and livestock to pour all their money into the investment schemes.

The Socialist Party, heirs to the former communists, said it was preparing a statement calling for the resignation of Mr Meksi's government and demanding an interim government made up of experts ahead of a fresh general election.

State television reported protests across southern Albania in Fier, Korce, Fushe Kruje, Berat, Memaliaj, Sarande, Mallakaster, Gramsh, Skrapar, Patos and Polican.

There was renewed trouble yesterday in Lushnje, where an angry crowd on Saturday attacked the Foreign Minister, Mr Tritan Shehu, who is also chairman of the Democratic Party.

Mr Shehu, who had travelled to Lushnje to try to calm the situation, was beaten on the head and was forced to flee into the locker rooms of the local soccer stadium, where he remained with his bodyguards. Mr Shehu stole away late at night in an unmarked car during a power cut.