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Uneasy Albania prepares for elections


President Berisha says he'll resign if Socialists win

June 27, 1997
Web posted at: 12:51 p.m. EDT (1651 GMT)

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TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- On the last day of a bitterly fought and sometimes violent election campaign, Albanian leftist leaders told thousands of supporters in the capital they were the last hope for restoring order in the troubled European country.

Sunday's parliamentary elections are meant as a step toward ending months of violence and anarchy.

Nearly 1,500 people have been killed since March, when protests over failed pyramid schemes turned into armed rebellion. Many Albanians, especially in the south, blamed the financial collapse on President Sali Berisha.

While his office is not at stake in the election, Berisha has pledged to resign if the opposition Socialists win control of Parliament. First results are expected Tuesday, and some seats will be contested in a July 6 runoff.

Socialists: Berisha a 'dictator'

"Albania is at risk and we are living in difficult times," Socialist leader Fatos Nano told about thousands of supporters on Tirana's central Skanderbeg Square on Friday. "That's why our country must be safe from the claws of the dictator Berisha."

The square had been off-limits for the Socialists since they were ousted from power by Berisha's dominant right-leaning Democratic Party in 1992.

Berisha was due to speak to his supporters in the same place later in the day. He has called the elections the last chance for Albanians to "save their democracy."

The president, too, has been a target of pre-election violence. Berisha escaped injury on Thursday when gunmen fired assault rifles at his motorcade during a campaign rally, wounding three guards.

Anarchy persists in some areas

kid with gun

The rallies mark the end of an electoral campaign waged against the backdrop of anarchy and violence, particularly in the south of the poverty-stricken nation, which remains largely outside government control.

Earlier this year, Berisha helped calm some of the unrest by agreeing to form a coalition government pending new elections, but by then a mass of weapons had been stolen from police and army depots.

Now, despite the presence of an Italian-led multinational protection force of nearly 7,000 troops, it's bullets rather than ballots that threaten to decide who will wield national authority in Europe's poorest country.

More than 500 observers will monitor the elections, a job given to the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Most observers left Tirana on Friday under armed escort.

Correspondent Mike Hanna and Reuters contributed to this report.


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