Albania votes in tense local elections

The polls were seen as a major test of the volatile`s country`s stability.

Tirana: Polls closed on Sunday in Albania`s tense local elections, seen as a major test of the volatile`s country`s stability as it tries to emerge from a two-year political crisis.

The elections, the first political contest between the ruling right and the opposition left since an anti-government demonstration turned deadly in January, started out calmly.

But as the day progressed the opposing sides accused each other of intimidation and irregularities.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha insisted the vote had been free and fair.

"The elections were free and fair and everything was calm," he told a press conference after polling stations closed.

He added that his rightwing coalition would recognise and respect the results.

"I invite my adversary to do the same," he said.

In a first reaction, opposition leader Edi Rama claimed victory in Tirana before any partial results were released.

"Our victory in Tirana is clear, we have seen the results for all of Albania," he said.

He also denounced the "intimidations and pressure" voters suffered and called for the counting of the votes in accordance with European standards.

The central electoral commission and independent analysts reported that the situation overall was calm.

"The situation is calm -- calmer than in previous elections," Arben Ristani, chief of the central election commission official, said.

Independent analyst Lutfi Dervishi said the reported incidents were "minimal".

Vote-counting was due to start shortly but it was unclear when the first results would be known.

The international community and the European Union see the polls as an important test for Albania as it struggles to break free of a two-year political crisis.

The vote was being closely monitored by some 5,000 local and international independent observers, whose report was expected on Tuesday.

The run-up to the elections saw violent incidents including three car bombings but observers and politicians said the campaign had been calmer than usual, without any deaths.

The most hotly contested political battle fought Sunday was over the capital Tirana where opposition Socialist leader Edi Rama hoped to get a fourth term as mayor. Analysts expect the vote in the capital to be very close.

Albania has been in a political stalemate since the opposition rejected the results of Parliamentary Elections in June 2009, accusing the ruling right-wing Democratic Party of electoral fraud and demanding a recount.

The crisis reached its peak in January when four people were killed and several injured at an anti-government protest in Tirana.

Seven members of the elite Republican Guards were briefly detained in connection with the deaths but only one is still in custody as the investigation continues.

The opposition left has cast Sunday`s vote as a referendum on the legitimacy of the ruling party following the deadly violence and both parties` militants were out in force.

Earlier on Sunday in the Kamza suburb of Tirana, a Democratic Party stronghold, Marieta Baroshe was waiting outside the polling station.

"I see a lot of bodyguards, militants of the different parties, and that worries me," she said.

"I do feel intimidated," she added, but said she would be voting Socialist.

A local official election observer in the neighbourhood who spoke on condition of anonymity, also noted the number of militants around the stations.

"There was some fighting, some problems, there are a lot of boys outside the polling stations," he said.

Bureau Report

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