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Feb 18, 9:33 AM EST

Albanian opposition Democrats in protest for free election



TIRANA, Albania (AP) -- Albania's main opposition Democratic Party leader has vowed to continue protests demanding that the government resign and hand over to a caretaker cabinet to take the country to free and fair elections in June.

Lulzim Basha on Saturday led a protest of several thousand supporters, accusing the Socialist-led government of trying to manipulate the voting process.

"I invite you all to stay together to achieve holding of free and fair elections that will come only after the replacement of this government of crime with a caretaker government to the free polls," he said.

Parliamentary elections scheduled for June 18 are hoped to pave the way for Albania to gain European Union approval to launch membership talks.

The government says there isn't time to meet the opposition's demand for electronic voting.

Unlike previous rallies, this one was peaceful with supporters holding party and Albanian flags, posters and shouting anti-government slogans. Later they burnt three scarecrows with faces of the premier and two ministers.

Basha accused the Socialist government of failing to deliver its promise of creating 300,000 jobs and free health care, also accusing it of corruption and links to crime and drug traffic.

Police gave no estimate on participants' numbers but Basha spoke of "hundreds of thousands."

Speaking to news 24 television, Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri said protesters would not be stopped from raising tents. "We care for the protestors. We don't kill them," he said.

Writing in his Facebook page, Prime Minister Edi Rama reminded the Democrats that six years ago their government had killed four Socialist supporters in a similar protest.

"We shall follow and respectfully listen to any expression of discontent," he added.

Elections in post-communist Albania have never been described by the international observers as fully free or fair.

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Llazar Semini contributed to this report.

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