Albanian government supporters rally in Tirana

Tens of thousands of supporters of Albania's ruling Democratic Party took part in a rally Sunday, ostensibly in celebration of the fall of communism 20 years ago but actually a show of strength against the opposition.

Supporters of Albania's ruling Democratic Party attending the rally in the capital's Mother Teresa Square carried both the Albanian and party flags, voicing their support for Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his embattled government, which faces calls from the opposition to resign over corruption allegations.

"Merry Feb. 20, the day of courage, bravery and freedom! This will remain the day of remembrance of the victims of communism," Berisha said during his speech.

Berisha sought to associate the Socialists, the main opposition party, with the fallen communist regime, and portray himself and his party as the defenders of freedom.

"You cannot come to power by force," he said, addressing the opposition.

Four people were shot dead and more than 150 protesters and policemen were injured at the Jan. 21 anti-government protest, organized by the Socialist Party, that demanded that Berisha hold early elections over allegations of corruption and vote rigging in the 2009 general election.

Berisha also delivered a message of unity, calling on his fellow Albanians "to build a European Albania."

Albania's communist regime, extraordinarily repressive even by the standards of the other former communist states in Eastern Europe, formally fell in December 1990 when the country declared political pluralism.

The government chose to commemorate an event that took place on Feb. 20, 1991, when people attending a students' protest toppled the six-meter (20-foot) tall monument to the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha from its pedestal in Tirana's central Skanderbeg Square. The statue was later destroyed.

"The toppling of the statue would mark the de facto fall of the Hoxha dictatorship," Berisha said.

At the end of the Prime Minister's speech firecrackers were thrown in celebration.

Earlier, the rally attendees had observed a minute of silence in memory of the victims of communism.

At the start of the rally, a big screen showed slogans such as "20 years of freedom, 20 years of democracy," ''Albania in NATO" and "Albania without visas". Western music blared from loudspeakers ahead of local bands' taking the stage.