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Albanian crowd injuries senior official, beats police

January 25, 1997

LUSHNJA, Albania (AP) _ Angry Albanians who lost money in high-risk, get-rich-quick schemes seized control of this central town Saturday, beating a government minister and riot police before turning on reporters.

Saturday night, President Sali Berisha appealed for calm and pledged that depositors would get their money back. He asked the protesters to be patient.

``It’s not possible to give money to 300,000 people in one day,″ he said in an interview on state television.

The promise came after protesters in Lushnja pelted Tritan Shehu, Albania’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, with stones. One attacker hit him in the back with an iron bar.

Shehu was trapped for hours inside an office at the town’s stadium, while a crowd of about 10,000 protesters chanted threats to kill him. But the protesters gradually dispersed and he was rescued Saturday night.

Ten policemen were beaten at the stadium and several of them were later hospitalized. A 37-year-old officer who was comatose and another policeman were evacuated by helicopter from Lushnja, 60 miles south of the capital, Tirana.

The crowd also turned on reporters covering the protest. Some journalists sought refuge in the town’s hospital.

State TV also reported trouble in at least five other communities: In Berat, about 30 miles southeast of Lushnja, protesters set fire to government buildings.

The chaos in Lushnja was the most serious in more than a week of disturbances that began when two investment schemes failed to pay out on schedule. Hundreds of thousands of Albania’s 3.2 million people put their savings into the funds

Average wages in Albania amount to $60-80 a month, and many of the investors sold houses or apartments in the hopes of striking it rich.

Financing of the funds is secretive, but many are thought to be pyramid schemes _ which pay early contributors handsome ``profits″ from the deposits of later contributors. The funds fail when no new contributors can be found.

The protesters in Lushnja refuse to believe their money was lost and have demanded that authorities release two local fund operators so that they can refund the money.

The two men, Rrapush Xhaferri and Bashkim Driza, were among 118 people detained recently in connection with the schemes. The government also has confiscated property and money and frozen $255 million of the funds’ assets.

The crowd at the Lushnja stadium threatened to kill Shehu unless Xhaferri was released from detention and brought to the town.

``If Xhaferri doesn’t come, Shehu is dead,″ they shouted.

Earlier, 18 people who had been detained overnight in Tirana were brought to Lushnja. A senior police official trying to calm the crowd had promised to release them.

But the crowd turned violent when the men appeared with bruises, apparently from police beatings.

Two brothers, Xhelal Mico, in his 40s, and Afrim Mico, 24, said they were detained by police at about 2 a.m., driven to Tirana and beaten.

Protesters shouted ``Down with the government!″ and ``We want our money!″

The crowd began throwing stones, striking Shehu in the head. Blood from the wound spattered down his back. A man came up with an iron bar, swung hard, and hit the minister in the back. Shehu was conscious, but in obvious pain.

Ten riot police who were ferried aboard a helicopter into the stadium were immediately set upon by the crowd. The officers pleaded for mercy, saying they had been forced to come, and turned over their weapons. But they were beaten anyway.

On Friday, protesters set fire to Lushnja’s municipal building, smashed windows in the theater and shops, and battled police. At least 10 policemen and two civilians were hurt.

Crowds remained on the street overnight, and on Saturday they blocked the road between Lushnja and Tirana. Groups of several hundred people were gathered at a series of barricades on the road leading into town, and about 5,000 more were at the entrance to the town itself.

One protester, Bujar Dervishi, said money he had saved after doing construction work for two years in neighboring Greece had been invested in two funds.

Without the money, he said he, his wife, two children and mother had to live on his mother’s pension that equaled about $30 a month.

Albanian newspapers have charged that some of the funds have been used to launder proceeds from the drug trade, prostitution and smuggling.

Protesters also have accused the ruling Democratic Party of profiting from the schemes, a charge that officials deny.

Update hourly