By Briseida Mema (AFP) – 3 hours ago
Reproduced for non-commercial use

TIRANA — Three people were shot dead during an anti-government protest in Tirana on Friday while dozens were injured in clashes between demonstrators and security forces, a hospital official said.

“Three people are dead, seventeen policemen and soldiers were injured, including three seriously, along with 22 civilians,” Sami Koceku, head of the military hospital emergency services told AFP by phone.

The victims were already dead when they were brought to the hospital, he said.

Several thousand demonstrators gathered in the centre of the capital after a call from the socialist opposition to protest against the government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha.

Demonstrators started throwing stones and other projectiles at the security forces who responded by firing tear gas into the crowd in front of the government buildings.

At least one police car was set on fire by protesters.

In the crowd people held up signs saying “Berisha get out” and “Down with the government”. New protesters were still coming into the centre of Tirana as the atmosphere grew tense.

The socialist opposition, led by Tirana mayor Edi Rama, called the demonstration to put pressure on the government to step down, accusing it of corruption and electoral fraud.

The demonstration follows the resignation last week of deputy prime minister Ilir Meta, who is at the centre of a corruption affair.

Ahead of the clashes the US embassy slammed some politicians’ apparent support for violent protest as “unacceptable”.

“In recent days the rhetoric and the language of selected political leaders have assumed a tone that suggests an endorsement of disruptive and harmful acts and inappropriate conduct,” it said in a statement.

“The use of provocative rhetoric and the suggestion or tolerance of any form of violence is a deep disservice to the people of Albania.”

Albania has been in prolonged political deadlock since the elections last year as the opposition has refused to recognise the results of the vote, blocking legislation and reforms in parliament.

The opposition also blamed the government of failing to convince the European Union to agree on the country’s candidate status.

Albania has got the green light from Brussels for visa liberalisation, but its request for EU candidate status was rejected..

Brussels urged the Balkan country to step up its fight against corruption and also expressed concern about the political crisis.

Rama, joined by leaders of other smaller opposition coalition partners, has led the protests claiming that the vote count at 2009 parliamentary polls was rigged to ensure the Berisha’s governing Democratic party was re-elected.

Though the opposition recognized the elections, they boycotted the parliament then started street protests, raising them to several day-long hunger strikes last summer.

Later, they decided to take part in the parliament’s sessions but not in the voting, making it hard for the country to pass much-needed reforms, especially those linked to the integration steps toward the EU.

Rama wanted a parliamentary investigation and a recount of ballots.

Berisha, who controls 75 of parliament’s 140 seats, has rejected their calls for a recount.

International efforts to mediate between the two sides have so far failed.

Since the collapse of Albania’s hardline communist regime in 1991, elections in the country have often been marred by violence and allegations of fraud. The current impasse is the longest political crisis the country has faced.

Copyright © 2011 AFP