Supporters of the opposition Democratic Party clash with the police during a rally in Tirana, Albania [Florion Goga/Reuters]
Thousands of Albanian opposition supporters called for the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama and Interior Minister Fatmir Xhafaj during a protest in the capital Tirana, accusing them of links to organised crime and drug smuggling.
Participants marched along Tirana’s Martyrs of the Nation boulevard on Saturday chanting “Rama go”. They held Albanian and European Union flags, and some threw stones and other objects at Rama’s office building and the interior ministry.
National police chief Ardi Veliu said 11 officers were injured while trying to keep protesters away from government buildings.
Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha addressed the rally, telling demonstrators the time had come for Rama to step down.
“They promised the people jobs, but the only jobs that this government has created are in sectors where they deal with drugs,” Basha told supporters.
“They promised rule of law but this government has only defended criminals and government officials who are connected to criminals.”
‘Smuggling and corruption’
The opposition fears the government’s alleged involvement in organised crime would disrupt the country’s path towards EU membership.
Albania, a NATO member since 2009, is expecting to launch negotiations to join the EU next month.
Basha estimated “hundreds of thousands” of people attended the event. Police gave no figures. The rally ended after about two hours.
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Some protesters pulled down a fence at the interior ministry and tried to break through a police cordon. The conservative opposition Democrats showed a picture of their newspaper’s editor-in-chief allegedly injured in skirmishes with police.
The protests were sparked after journalist Jetmir Olldashi released a recording of a phone conversation, which the opposition believes was between Xhafaj’s brother and a drug dealer.
“They talked over the phone and that’s the audio clip that was released. They talked about smuggling cannabis to Italy,” Olldashi told Al Jazeera.
‘Ridiculous and unbelievable’
Democrats accuse Xhafaj of supporting his brother’s alleged drug-related activities. Earlier this month, the brother turned himself in to Italian authorities to serve a 2002 sentence for drug trafficking.
Xhafaj denies the allegations, saying he would resign the moment the claims were proven.
Al Jazeera’s Avni Ahmetaj, reporting from Tirana, said tensions have risen following a court decision two weeks ago to place under house arrest former interior minister Saimir Tahiri and “a long time, close associate of Rama”, who it alleged were involved in “drug smuggling and corruption”.
The accused officials rejected all allegations against them.
Rama took to Facebook on Saturday to thank Democrats who refused to take part in the rally.
“Thank you to all the Democrats who do not support the government but still refused to take part in the protest, which sounds ridiculous and unbelievable for every Albanian who does not accept hurting his country because of hidden interests,” Rama wrote.
The Democrats suffered a landslide loss in last year’s parliamentary election securing only 43 of the 140 seats.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies