Three killed as Albanian police clash with protesters

Police struggled to hold back thousands of protesters

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Three people have been killed in the Albanian capital Tirana during clashes between police and thousands of opposition supporters.

An estimated 20,000 people rallied outside government buildings calling on the conservative government to resign.

The protests follow the resignation of deputy prime minister Ilir Meta who is at the centre of a fraud scandal.

The socialist opposition accuses the government of corruption, abuse of power and rigging the last election.

Albania has been in political deadlock since the opposition rejected the result of the 2009 elections.

"Unfortunately, three of the civilians have died," Alfred Gega, deputy director of Tirana's Military Hospital, told reporters. He said one victim had a gunshot wound to the head and the other two had been shot in the chest from close range.

It was not clear who had carried out the shooting.

More than 30 protesters and 17 policemen were wounded. A civilian and a policeman were in a critical condition, Mr Gega added.

Witnesses said a section of the crowd threw rocks at the police who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Start Quote

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”

End Quote Edi Rama Socialist Party leader

Some protesters also threw stones from the top of a pyramid-shaped building near the office of Prime Minister Sali Berisha and set light to a police car and other vehicles.

Truncheons

Following three hours of clashes, protesters dispersed after appeals for calm from President Bamir Topi and Socialist Party leader Edi Rama.

Police in riot gear then took control of the main streets and television footage showed officers fanning out through the main boulevard, chasing stray protesters and beating some with truncheons.

There were no immediate reports of arrests.

Mr Rama said that despite the violence, the government should heed the message from the protest.

"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 US embassy, the EU and regional group the OSCE issued a joint statement expressing "deep regret" for the violence.

"Violence and excessive use of force cannot be justified and should be avoided," the statement said.

"We urgently appeal for calm and restraint on all sides and to abstain from provocations."

Protesters clash with police in Tirana

British MP Mark Pritchard, who chairs the UK parliamentary group on Albania, also called for restraint.

"It would be very sad indeed, with Albania having come so far so quickly to build up its democracy and democratic institutions and having worked so hard towards possible future EU membership, if violence and political disunity were to put this at risk," he told the BBC.

"I hope that all political parties will put their differences aside for the sake of the Albanian nation and people and to safeguard Albania's international reputation."

The opposition wants fresh parliamentary elections after rejecting the result of the June 2009 vote which Mr Berisha's Democratic Party won by a small margin.

Political tensions rose after Ilir Meta - Mr Berisha's key ally - resigned last week after being accused of corruption over a power plant tender.

Albania - one of Europe's poorest countries - will hold local elections on 8 May but the next general election is not due until 2013.

Since the fall of communism in 1991, Albania has never held an election that has met all international standards.

Its hopes of joining the EU have been thwarted as it struggles to prove it has made the transition to a fully-functioning democracy.

Brussels rejected Albania's application for candidate status late last year, urging it to meet an agenda of 12 points, in particular fighting corruption.

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