Opposition holds new anti-govt protest (Updated)

By Llazar Semini - Associated Press

Tirana, Albania — Tens of thousands of Albanian opposition supporters marched peacefully through the capital Friday to demand the government resign over corruption allegations, almost a month after four people died when a similar demonstration turned violent.

Hundreds of police guarded the main government building in Tirana, where dozens of protesters and police were injured in the Jan 21 riot. But the protest ended peacefully.

The opposition Socialists are demanding that conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha hold early elections over allegations of corruption and vote rigging in the 2009 general election.

Shouting "Sali go," and "Prime Minister you are a murderer," as loudspeakers played somber music, protesters filled Tirana's main boulevard. Crowd estimates differed wildly, with opposition officials claiming some 200,000 people took part in the demonstration - compared to a police estimate of 7,000.

"We are the only hope to give an end to the injustice and give Albania a fair governance," Socialist leader Edi Rama said in a speech to protesters. "We do not want to come to power through demonstrations but we shall keep on demonstrating to oust this government. Here are the people asking for fresh, free and fair elections."

Speaking to Associated Press Television, Rama accused Berisha's government of "killing people after having stolen elections to rob the country." He said a peaceful solution was needed to end "a crisis that is harming everyday the country and the common people."

Berisha has refused to resign, accusing the opposition of trying to stage a coup.

This week, the parliament voted to lift the immunity of former deputy premier Ilir Meta, who resigned last month over allegations he tried to influence a state tender for a hydropower station. Meta denied any wrongdoing.

Next week, lawmakers are expected to do the same with former economy minister Dritan Prifti, who made the allegations concerning Meta.

Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries and now a NATO member, is seeking to join the European Union, but the 27-nation bloc has said the Balkan country of 3.2 million people has not yet done enough to root out corruption.

European and U.S. officials have repeatedly called for restraint from both the Socialists and Berisha's governing Democrats.

The U.S. embassy has advised its citizens to avoid any areas where demonstrations are occurring and to limit all unnecessary travel during protests.

The governing Democrats canceled initial plans for a counter-rally of their own last month. But on Sunday, the party has urged supporters to turn out in strength at a concert to celebrate the fall of the country's former Communist regime in late 1990.