TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Police in Albania used a water cannon trick and tear gas to disperse protests who broke into the headquarters of the country’s main opposition party in an internal squabble over the party's leadership.
Scores of officers pushed back hundreds of protesters who had stormed the ground floor of the center-right Democratic Party’s headquarters. They detained 25 of the trespassers and eight party staff members as the two sides clashed, authorities said.
A group led by former party leader Sali Berisha used iron bars and hammers to break open the main doors of the building. Employees fired tear gas to try to prevent them breaking in before the police intervened at the party's request.
At least one civilian and one police officer were “slightly wounded,” according to Lorenc Panganika, the head of police in Tirana. Television coverage showed more civilians who appeared to recovering from the tear gas or clashes.
Berisha is trying to remove the Democrats’ leader, Lulzim Basha, whom he accuses of being a "traitor' and a “hostage” of Prime Minister Edi Rama of the left-wing Socialist Party. Basha threw Berisha out of the party's parliamentary caucus in September.
In a statement, the Democratic Party said, “Today’s acts of violence against the Democratic Party mark Sali Berisha’s final isolation and a shameful move out of the political scene.”
Berisha closed the demonstration after three hours, saying it was part of an “unstoppable revolution.” He said he and his supporters would embark on a nationwide campaign “to dismantle the narco-government.”
Prosecutors opened an investigation of the protest violence. U.S. Ambassador to Albania Yuri Kim expressed concern at the “rising tensions” at the Democrats’ building and called on protesters “to reject violence and exercise calm.”
Speaking at a news conference Basha condemned what he called “Sali Berisha's criminal organization that, with terrorist tools, tried to violently usurp the Democrats' headquarters to be protected from his non grata designation.”
In December Berisha’s parliamentary grouping claimed to have held a referendum removing Basha from his post, but the move was not recognized by the Democratic Party.
Berisha, 77, served as Albania’s prime minister from 2005 until 2013 and as president from 1992-1997. He was reelected as a lawmaker for the Democratic Party in an April 2021 parliamentary election.
The U.S. government imposed sanctions on Berisha last year. In May, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken saidthat during Berisha’s 2005-2013 tenure as prime minister, the politician was involved in corrupt acts and had used “his power for his own benefit and to enrich his political allies and his family members.”
Blinken also accused Berisha of interfering in “independent investigations, anticorruption efforts, and accountability measures.” He said Berisha’s “corrupt acts undermined democracy in Albania.”
Fighting corruption has been post-communist Albania’s Achilles’ heel, strongly affecting the country’s democratic, economic and social development. Berisha was the fourth top Albanian official to be barred from entering the United States because of alleged involvement in corruption.
Last month U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar said there would be “consequences” if the Democratic Party chose a leader whom Washington had designated as persona non grata.
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Llazar Semini, The Associated Press