Albania forms commission to probe violent protest

Albania's parliament held a special session late Sunday to launch an investigation into an opposition protest that the governing Democratic Party has called an attempted coup.

An 11-member commission was created at the session to investigate Friday's violence after three people were killed and more than 150 were injured in clashes with police at a rally against the government, which protesters accuse of being corrupt.

Only governing party lawmakers attended the session, with opposition parties boycotting. Prime Minister Sali Berisha has referred to the unrest as an attempted coup, blaming opposition extremists for the three deaths. Opposition leaders say government forces opened fire on demonstrators.

"I invite you to create the investigative parliamentary commission to probe this putsch," Berisha said before parliament voted 73-0 to create the commission, which will carry out its work for three months.

Opposition Socialist Party leader Edi Rama has denied organizing a coup to oust the government and urged people to come to a peaceful demonstration Jan. 28.

"That is an invitation for you, all those who want a one-way street toward an Albania in which everyone feels free and equal before the law," said Rama, speaking from Fier, 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Tirana, where he took part in a funeral for one of the dead.

Rama dismissed the parliament's decision to create a commission, saying it is "of no importance to comment on such a banality."

Berisha said his party would postpone their rally against violence from Wednesday to Saturday, following meetings with Western ambassadors who expressed reservations about the demonstration. The premier said he would not tolerate a second attack on the government building.

"If you (Edi Rama) try to surround the government building again, you will find what a bandit deserves. I won't deal with anyone else. Anyone else will be under an amnesty, but him. If he touches institutions any more it will be him and only him, the chief bandit who will take their cost," Berisha said.

Rama said "my life is not dearer than that of the three innocent Albanians killed by the hand of the state. I am in the battle together with the others."

The opposition also complained that police have not yet acted on arrest warrants issued Saturday for six officers of the National Guard — army troops under Interior Ministry command who guard government institutions and senior officials.

The governing Democrats consider the warrants anti-constitutional, and Berisha said the warrants had many technical violations.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Berisha said he would not yield to demands to step down and accused the Socialist leader of trying to "gain power through force." He also said Rama led "gangs, thugs and criminals" to the government building.

Western ambassadors are meeting with Albania's top leaders in an effort to mediate a compromise.

The U.S. and the European Union have both appealed for calm, urging both sides to refrain from violence and political leaders to search for compromise.

Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries that for about half a century was ruled by xenophobic Communists who banned contact with the outside world until 1990, is now a NATO member and seeks to join the 27-nation EU.

But its still-weak administration, widespread corruption and the ever-squabbling politicians have often taken the tiny Balkan country of 3.2 million into chaos, similar to 1997 following the collapse of popular investment schemes.

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Nebi Qena contributed to this report.