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Albanians vote for parliament amid threats, violence

June 29, 1997

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Gunfire rippled through the capital Sunday night after Socialists claimed victory in Albania’s parliamentary elections. But official results weren’t expected until Monday and their Democratic rivals contested the claim.

The elections _ marred by shootings around the country and by gunmen menacing voters, burning ballots and pressuring polling officials _ were aimed at steering Albania toward recovery after months of chaos.

Albanians overcame fears of mayhem and ventured to the polls, taking a key step in re-establishing order. One party official was killed in a voting-related attack.

The election was aimed at restoring calm in a country controlled in places by armed groups.

Protests over failed investment schemes exploded in the spring into armed insurrection across the country _ much of it aimed against Berisha. Albanians looted hundreds of thousands of guns from government armories; more than 1,500 people have been killed since March.

Voters were nervous that violence could erupt any time _ especially as polling stations closed and reports about unofficial election results began to dribble out.

``We are very grateful that you are here, but we will have nightmares until the results are known,″ Tirana voter Rufie Disha told Catherine Lalumiere, head of the 500 election observers dispatched by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Anticipating bloodshed once results become known, police patrolled the capital’s streets in armored personnel carriers. Security forces were on alert.

Plain-clothes agents gathered outside President Sali Berisha’s office. ``Maybe they are preparing for their last breath,″ Socialist Party spokesman Kastriot Islami said.

Crowds several hundred-strong were gathered outside the Socialist and Democratic Party headquarters.

Socialist leader Fatos Nano told reporters late Sunday night that his party had won control of the 155-seat unicameral parliament. He said his estimates were based on the reports of Socialist members of local electoral commissions.

``We will control two-thirds of the parliament for sure,″ Nano said. ``It is significant, because of this Albania has definitely shut off a critical past.″

A Democratic Party spokesman said that it was impossible for the Socialists to be making such claims, since results have not been announced and its own early information indicated several run-off elections would be needed.

Unusually heavy gunfire rippled through Trirana as radio stations issued conflicting election results.

The sometimes violent rivalry between Berisha’s Democrats and the Socialist-led opposition has consumed the country and added to the overall chaos. Berisha and his main political rivals agreed on the election rules and date only a month ago.

Most polling stations closed at 6 p.m., though some stayed open later. First results were expected Monday.

Seven hundred foreign observers were monitoring the vote, protected by a 7,000-member Italian-led multinational force that arrived here 2 1/2 months ago.

``So far, there have been no serious reports from our patrols,″ said force spokesman, Col. Giovanni Bernardi.

But around this Balkan nation of 3.2 million people, Europe’s poorest country, reports of violence and voter intimidation abounded.

Burhan Misiri, a top Democratic Party official in the southern district of Fier, was shot and killed, authorities said. The party said the assailant was a Socialist activist. A policeman also was wounded in that attack.

Another policeman was shot and wounded in the Prrenjas region southwest of Tirana.

In the southern city of Gjirokastra, a Socialist enclave, thousands of people were firing weapons in the air in anticipation of an opposition victory.

Earlier in Gjirokastra, an Albanian guard at the Greek consulate was shot and killed overnight and two children were wounded by gunfire on Sunday morning. A bar that was a gathering place for Democratic Party members in Gjirokastra was set on fire early Sunday. In the nearby village of Dervicani, a man raked a polling station with gunfire, but there were no casualties, members of the multinational force reported.

A grenade was thrown into the yard of the head of the electoral commission in Lushnja on Sunday, the ATA state news agency reported. There were no injuries.

Gunmen were said to be pressuring voters to choose Socialists in at least three towns, the central election commission said. The Socialists reported the same kind of pressure from Democrats.

Intimidation kept many Democratic Party members from serving on electoral commissions in the south, where the anti-Berisha rebellion began. In Vlora, some two-thirds did not show up, a local reporter said.

The electoral commission in Marinez, a village near Fier, reported that gunmen forced its members to certify that Socialists had won 100 percent of the votes. In Belsh, the Democratic Party said its representatives in four polling stations were forced out by Socialist supporters. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

Gunmen entered a polling station in the village of Rrushbull and burned all the ballots, police said.

Voting stopped altogether after noon in four polling stations in Lezha, 35 miles north of Tirana, because young men seized the ballots and marked them for the pro-monarchy Legality Party, local police reported.

Legality Party leader Guri Durollari claimed that about 200,000 monarchy referendum ballots were missing across the country.

As of Saturday, 2 million Albanians had registered to vote.

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