Albania protesters hurl firebombs after calls for restraint

Protesters try to remove a metal fence during clashes with police outside the Government building in Tirana, Saturday, May 11, 2019. Thousands of supporters of the Albania's center-right opposition protested in Tirana Saturday, calling for the left-wing government to resign and for an early parliamentary election. (AP Photo/Hektor Pustina)

TIRANA, Albania — Anti-government protesters in Albania hurled firebombs and flares at riot officers standing in front of the main government building and national police headquarters Monday, hours after the U.S. and European Union lawmakers called for restraint.

Thousands of demonstrators, many holding umbrellas, marched in driving rain as thick clouds of white smoke from flares hung above them at times. So far, police haven't responded.

"It is a march of protest against the illegitimate government," said Lulzim Basha, leader of the main opposition center-right Democratic Party.

The protesters were heading to five locations "symbolizing the institutions captured" by the government, he said in an address to protesters.

They are the prime minister's office, the national police headquarters, parliament, the interior ministry and the Tirana city police department, where 50 opposition demonstrators were arrested after a violent protest Saturday.

The opposition has been holding protests since mid-February, accusing government officials of corruption and of stealing votes in the parliamentary election two years ago. They are demanding a transitory government and an early election.

Opposition lawmakers relinquished their seats in parliament in protest, though many vacancies ultimately were filled by other opposition candidates. The governing Socialists have 74 seats in the 140-seat parliament.

Protests over the weekend also turned hostile, with opposition supporters showering police officers with firebombs while police responded with tear gas. Injuries were reported on both sides.

Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama denounced the violent behavior of protesters, saying "Albania is damaged."

Before Monday's protest, the Interior Ministry said that the opposition would "try to repeat the same acts of violence."

But the Democratic Party accused the government of trying to stir up "confrontation, conflict and fear among citizens."

"We assure citizens that the Democratic Party is committed only to a peaceful protest," the party said.

A U.S. Embassy statement in Tirana on Monday called on opposition leaders to condemn violence and "ensure that all future public protests are orderly and peaceful."

"Violent demonstrations are damaging Albania's democratic reform efforts and the country's prospects for moving forward on the EU path," it said, urging them to "engage in a constructive dialogue aimed at bringing an end to the political impasse."

European parliamentarians also called on Albanians "to restrain from all forms of violence" because the recent violence "could give the wrong impression that Albania is not ready for the opening of the accession negotiations in June this year."

Italian, German and British embassies also called for a peaceful protest and for all sides to enter into dialogue.

The leaders of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also called "for utmost restraint and dialogue."

They also denounced "attempted intimidation" directed at the OSCE's presence in Albania. On Sunday, threatening words were written at the building where the OSCE ambassador in Tirana lives.

Albania expects to hear in June whether the EU will grant its request to launch full membership negotiations.

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Follow Llazar Semini on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lsemini

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