- Associated Press - Friday, January 28, 2011

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Tens of thousands of Albanians holding flowers and candles marched silently through Albania’s capital Friday in a peaceful anti-government demonstration to honor three opposition supporters shot dead during a protest last week.

Hundreds of police guarded the main government building in the Tirana city center, fearing a repeat of the deadly clashes that injured more than 150 protesters and security officers. Authorities have said they consider the demonstration a security threat, and refused to guarantee protesters’ safety.

However, the march, led by opposition Socialist leader Edi Rama, senior members of his party and relatives of the victims, appeared to be more of a funeral procession than a protest.

As loudspeakers played somber music, protesters laid flowers and lit candles under giant photos of the three dead men outside the government building.

Socialist spokeswoman Armela Ymeraj said some 200,000 people were on the streets. The figure was hard to verify and police provided no official estimate.

The Socialists insist on the resignation of Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s government for alleged corruption, following months of simmering tensions over disputed national elections.

“As long as the causes of the Jan. 21 protest exist, our protests will continue,” Socialist lawmaker Saimir Tahiri told the Associated Press.

Tensions rose sharply earlier this month when the country’s deputy prime minister, Ilir Meta, resigned amid allegations he tried to influence a state tender for a hydropower station. The opposition wants the government to hold early general elections because of the scandal and their allegation that the conservatives rigged the 2009 ballot.

Mr. Berisha has refused to resign, and accused the opposition of attempting to stage a coup d’etat.

He said Albanians’ right to protest would by respected, but warned Rama not to try to overthrow the government, or “he will face consequences he cannot imagine.”

European Union and U.S. officials have urged restraint from the Socialists and the governing Democrats, who agreed to cancel a protest of their own scheduled for Saturday.

“We call on all sides and their leaders to engage in a considered dialogue to manage political differences and avoid further bloodshed and suffering,” Ian Kelly, U.S. Ambassador at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Thursday.

Anticipating unrest, the U.S. Embassy in Tirana was closed on Friday.

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