Two guardsmen arrested over deadly clashes

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Tirana, February 9 2011 NOA – Albanian authorities have arrested two special unit guardsmen over the deaths of four people during an anti-government demonstration last month, the prosecutor general's office said Wednesday.

The office said in a statement that the two officers from the Guard of the Republic — tasked with protecting government institutions and officials — are the main suspects in the deaths of the protesters who were shot in clashes with security forces in Tirana during the Jan. 21 demonstration. Another six Guard officers were questioned but released.

About 150 people were injured in the violence, during which protesters hurled rocks and other objects at hundreds of guardsmen and police protecting the main government building.

A U.S. prosecutor and two experts are assisting Albanian prosecutors in the case.

The opposition Socialists are demanding that conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha call elections over allegations of corruption and vote rigging in the previous 2009 general polls. Berisha has refused to resign, accusing the opposition of trying to stage a coup.

President Bamir Topi has accused political parties of pressuring the prosecutor's office investigating the deaths.

"Albania and Albanians are still unclear about what happened and how it happened," Topi said at a news conference. "The long political battle ... is hampering justice to separate truth from untruth."

European and U.S. officials have repeatedly called for restraint from both opposition Socialists and governing Democrats, and have pressed for a compromise to resolve the crisis.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Countryman is in Tirana to meet with party leaders.

Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, and now a NATO member, is seeking to join the 27-nation European Union, though the tiny Balkan country of 3.2 million still suffers from a weak administration and widespread corruption.