Albania holds local elections amid unrest

Albanians cast ballots Sunday to elect the local authorities amid reports of incidents among political rivals following an election campaign marred by violence.

The main focus of the poll is the capital, Tirana, where the leader of the opposition and three-time Mayor Edi Rama is running for re-election against former Interior Minister Lulzim Basha of the governing Democratic Party.

The first preliminary results are expected Monday, according to election officials.

During the monthlong electoral campaign, police reported about 60 violent incidents, including explosions, several stabbing, beatings and threats that have led to about a dozen arrests. In January, political violence peaked with riots in which four opposition Socialists supporters were shot dead.

More than 5,000 police officers were deployed to protect polling stations Sunday, and authorities and the local media reported a spate of incidents, including clashes between rival voting commission members as well as voters. A private national television station said one of its cameras was stolen.

Police say they have arrested four persons accused of violence.

About 3.2 million people are registered to vote for representatives in a total of 383 urban and rural districts.

While polls officially closed at 7 p.m. local (1700 GMT), official allowed those still queuing to cast their vote.

Turnout at 1400 GMT, three hours before polling closed, was 35 percent, according to the Central Election Commission.

It is unclear whether the vote will help restore political stability following almost two years of opposition anger over the last national election's contested outcome. About 300 international observers and thousands of local ones monitored Sunday's vote.

Officials from across the political spectrum called for calm.

"Today's appeal is for a big turnout and I believe that law enforcement authorities will ensure calm during the day," President Bamir Topi said.

Albania, the former isolationist Communist country that is now a NATO member, remains one of Europe's poorest and has enjoyed little political harmony over the past 20 years of democratic government.

A preliminary assessment of the election by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will be made Tuesday.

"The political class should show leadership in accepting the outcomes of a democratic election process, with citizens casting the ballots and truthful counting and civilized behavior throughout the process," said Eugen Wollfarth, a representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.