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Demonstrators, police clash in southern Albanian town

January 24, 1997

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Thousands of demonstrators clashed with police Friday in southern Albania, venting their anger over failing get-rich-quick schemes that have cost thousands of people their savings.

At least 10 policemen and two civilians were injured in the clashes outside City Hall in Lushnja, 62 miles south of the capital, Tirana.

More than 5,000 protesters demanded the return of their money, shouted slogans against President Sali Berisha and hurled stones through the building’s windows.

``What we seek is simply justice and our money,″ said Aleksander Gjini, a 40-year-old teacher.

Witnesses said the demonstrators set fire to municipal building offices, burning tables and chairs. They also smashed shop windows, set fire to the city’s theater and lit bonfires in the streets.

Parliament passed a law Thursday outlawing the pyramid schemes, in which early investors profit from the contributions of later investors. The schemes collapse when no new investors can be brought in, and late investors lose all their money.

Protests against the schemes began last week in Tirana and the southern port of Vlora when two of the schemes failed to pay out as expected. Hundreds of thousands of Albania’s 3.2 million people have invested savings, sold houses, or even borrowed money to take part.

The government said Thursday that 118 people involved in two of the schemes had been arrested and their property and large amounts of cash were confiscated.

But that only angered some protesters Friday, who accuse the government of stealing the money in the funds and jailing the fund administrators to keep them quiet. Many accuse Berisha’s Democratic Party of profiting from the pyramid schemes, a charge the party denies.

On Friday, protesters held portraits of the heads of two schemes who were arrested Wednesday and demanded their release. The two, Rrapush Xhaferri and Bashkim Driza, are from Lushnja and have contributed a lot of money to the town and sponsor its soccer team.

Police moved the protesters from the city center to the edge of Lushnja, where a major highway bisects the town. There the demonstrators blocked traffic and badly beat a taxi driver.

Protesters set one van on fire, and at least 10 policemen were injured. Two were hospitalized.

Protesters also blocked a train traveling from Tirana to the southern port of Vlora, piling rocks and logs on the tracks and forcing all the passengers to get off outside Lushnja. They also set fires on roads leading to the city to keep anyone from entering.

In Tirana, Berisha met with the prime minister, parliamentary speaker and other officials to discuss the crisis. He proposed creating a commission of lawyers, financial experts and investors to find ways of returning the money.

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