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Threats fly, tensions escalate between political rivals in Albania

From Altin Raxhimi, CNN
On Sunday, Albanian opposition leader Edi Rama gives a speech during a ceremony for a man killed during riots.
On Sunday, Albanian opposition leader Edi Rama gives a speech during a ceremony for a man killed during riots.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Socialist Party calls for a protest Friday, a week after 3 died in a similar rally
  • PM says Socialist Party head Rama could get "exemplary punishment" if that happens
  • Rama says he won't back down, accusing PM Berisha of using forces to "annihilate justice"
  • Albania is in the midst of a political stalemate tied to a disputed June 2009 election

Tirana, Albania (CNN) -- The showdown between Albania's ruling government and its political opposition showed no signs of abating Sunday, with Socialist Party leader Edi Rama calling for yet another demonstration despite fresh threats from the nation's prime minister.

Rama, also the mayor of the capital city, Tirana, on Sunday promoted a protest at 2 p.m. Friday to decry alleged corruption and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sal Berisha. This would be exactly one week after tens of thousands rallied for the same cause in Albania's capital, leading to the deaths of three people after some protesters clashed with government forces.

"My life is not more precious than that of the three Albanians you killed," Rama said, referring to the prime minister who has consistently singled out the Socialist Party leader for blame. "Berisha has committed a coup d'etat by using the government to subdue, violate and annihilate justice."

The opposition has accused police of provoking protesters. But Berisha had said demonstrators instigated the violence in a bid to take over his office as well as parliament and key ministries.

Protest turns deadly in Albania
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In a televised government meeting Sunday, Berisha said that Rama would be held accountable if there was, in his view, yet another attempt to attack government institutions.

"Any attempt from him for violence against (government) institutions will face exemplary punishment, and it will be him and nobody else," the prime minister said Sunday, vowing to give amnesty to all others involved in the demonstrations. "If you try again to besiege the prime minister, you will find what a bandit that ambushes you deserves."

The Socialist Party claimed that around 250,000 people had gathered outside Berisha's office to implore him to resign. Some threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the more than 1,000 security personnel at the scene, who used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

On Sunday, Berisha updated the toll from that demonstration -- saying 27 policemen and 81 national guard members were hurt in the confrontations. The Socialist Party, meanwhile, claims 46 protesters suffered injuries, including one who is still in critical condition, with a few protesters hit by gunfire.

A special parliamentary panel is being convened, at the request of Berisha's ruling party, to formally determine who is to blame for Friday's violence.

Berisha said police refused to abide by an order from Albania's prosecutor general to arrest six commanders of the country's national guard, saying they did so because the prosecutor general's office has been biased in the opposition's favor.

At least 113 people already have been arrested and charged with confronting riot police and destroying property, according to a statement from Tirana police. In a meeting Sunday with leaders of state police units, Interior Minister Lulzim Basha said these forces would continue working to maintain public order and keep the peace, state-run news agency ATA reported.

Nonetheless, after the funeral Sunday for the last of the three killed last Friday, Rama called for yet another protest.

Two of the victims were unemployed, the third was a farmer, and each of them had two children, according to the Socialist Party website. All were shot to death at close range, Tirana Military Hospital emergency chief Sami Koceku said -- a claim that the opposition disputes.

Berisha said that a counter demonstration, in which he'd be among those speaking to his supporters, would be held next Saturday. This rally had been set for Wednesday, but was pushed back since the prime minister will attend a conference Thursday in Strasbourg, France.

The recent clashes and back-and-forth allegations are set against the backdrop of a longstanding political stalemate tied to a disputed June 2009 election, one that international diplomats are pushing hard for Albanian leaders to resolve peacefully.

The country's supreme court determined that the elections were valid, and the ballots were burned by the Central Election Commission. And on Friday, Berisha vowed that there would "be no early elections" and that "general elections will be held in 2013" -- rebuttal to a proposal being pushed by the opposition.

Rama, for his part, on Sunday stood by his claims that Berisha's ruling party had stolen the previous election and vowed to fight on.

"I am in this battle together with others (and we) will not leave half way -- the battle for an Albania in which one votes freely, a country where the government depends on the people and not where the people depend on the government," he said.

Already-high tensions in the southeastern European nation escalated in recent weeks when a former government minister sent the media a secret recording that allegedly documented an illicit back-room deal involving government contracts and other ministers in Berisha's administration.

In addition to the increasingly pointed, accusatory barbs between Rama and Berisha, personal slurs marred a parliamentary session this week meant to settle governmental changes following the resignation of a minister central to that video.

Berisha met Sunday with U.S., UK and EU ambassadors, among other diplomats, all of whom have publicly called for calm and dialogue between rival parties.

"We have repeatedly urged Albania's political leaders to search for compromise," U.S. Ambassador Alexander Arvizu, who also met Albanian President Bamir Topi, said Saturday. "When one side -- or both -- insists on maximalist positions that it knows the other side cannot accept, I'm sorry, that's not compromise. Resolving political differences through street battles is also not compromise, and does not reflect the democratic aspirations of Albanians."

"It's time to desist from further provocations," he added. "It's time to stop the mutual recriminations and name-calling."

 
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