TIRANA, Albania – Albania's main opposition party on Saturday blamed the government for the deaths of three people during the most violent anti-government protests the country had seen in years.
Socialist Party leader Edi Rama directly accused Interior Minister Lulzim Basha of abuse of post and called for him to be arrested. He also accused Prime Minister Sali Berisha of being the "political orchestrator" of the deaths.
Berisha, however, alleged the demonstrators included "gangs of criminals, bandits, traffickers and terrorists" trying to overthrow the government with a "Tunisian-style" demonstration — referring to the rioting that recently toppled Tunisia's government.
Police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons in Friday's clashes with protesters demanding new elections following the resignation of the country's deputy prime minister over alleged corruption.
At least 15 police vehicles were overturned and burned by demonstrations, while more than 150 protesters and police were injured in the clashes. All three men were killed by gunshots, said hospital doctor Sami Koceku, two by wounds to the chest and the other to the head.
The Prosecutor General's office said the three deaths were being investigated. Berisha, who has rejected calls for early elections, claimed the victims were killed by "bandits" within the protesters, while the opposition said authorities were responsible.
Police spokeswoman Klejda Plangarica said media reports of a fourth death could not be confirmed.
The demonstration in the center of Albania's capital, Tirana, began with about 20,000 people, but organizers claimed it swelled to up to 300,000. Police did not give any figures. The protest quickly turned violent, with people pelting police with banners, umbrellas, eggs and stones, and riot police responding with water cannons, volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.
The United States and the European Union have both appealed for calm.
Tensions have been mounting for months between Albania's government and the Socialists, and they rose sharply last week when the country's deputy prime minister, Ilir Meta, resigned after a private TV station aired a video allegedly showing Meta asking a colleague to influence the awarding of a contract to build a power station.
The Socialists also have accused Berisha's conservative Democratic Party of rigging Albania's 2009 election, which it won by a narrow margin.
The next election is scheduled in 2013, but the opposition has been calling for months for new polls to be held sooner.
The Socialists vowed to continue the anti-government protests, but said they would not hold any demonstrations on Saturday, when the three people killed were to be buried.