TIRANA, Albania — On the eve of a national day of protest he called against the Albanian government, former President Sali Berisha on Wednesday dared authorities to come and get him. Diplomats tried to talk both sides out of a bloody confrontation.
Berisha and about 1,500 supporters ignored a ban and held a peaceful protest in the streets as parliament moved closer to lifting Berisha's immunity from prosecution. Prime Minister Fatos Nano has accused Berisha of trying to stage a coup during two days of riots this week that left at least seven people dead.
The stakes in this confrontation are high for Albania and the Balkan region.
If Albania collapses into anarchy for the second time in 18 months, diplomats fear that the unrest also will complicate efforts to stop the fighting in the neighboring Kosovo region, where Yugoslavia's paramilitary police and army are trying to crush a separatist rebellion by ethnic Albanians.
The United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization continue to warn that they are prepared to step in to try to stop the fighting in the province. Escalating violence in Albania would make military intervention riskier.
"I am not disturbed," Berisha told a news conference Wednesday. "I am prepared to continue my battle in any situation. I will always be in the country, alive or dead, in my home or elsewhere."
He has accused the government of assassinating his political ally, Azem Hajdari, who was slain along with a bodyguard Saturday. Berisha's call for a national day of protest today is an ominous threat in a country where many people own arms; last spring, Albania's armories were looted in the chaos that ensued after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes.
The center of Tirana appeared calm late Wednesday, but Berisha accused the government of preventing his supporters from getting into the capital. On the main road from the airport, police checked most cars at a roadblock on the outskirts of the city.
Diplomats said the relative calm could evaporate quickly.
Dutch diplomat Daan Everts, who heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission here, accused Berisha and his Democratic Party supporters of provoking violence.
"They have, I think, been irresponsible in not outrightly condemning the violence, not calling for people to lay down arms," Everts said in an interview. "If they had really wanted to preserve peace and calm, they could have done so."
During Wednesday's peaceful rally, Berisha's supporters shouted "Death to Fatos Nano." Although his other backers surrendered two tanks seized during riots Monday, the government says Berisha's Democratic Party headquarters is still a heavily armed camp.
Berisha's Democrats lost elections last year after thousands saw their life savings evaporate in the high-risk investment schemes.
Parliament would have lifted Berisha's immunity from prosecution quickly if foreign diplomats hadn't argued that the commission reviewing that issue should go through each step required by law, Everts said.
That bought some more time for negotiations and perhaps some arm-twisting by a high-level European delegation expected to visit in the next few days, the Dutch ambassador added.
Nano already has warned that his patience is running thin, and Berisha is expected to lose his legal protection today. That would leave the government free to send in special troops to arrest him.
Nano has won Western support by helping to isolate ethnic Albanian rebels in neighboring Kosovo, whom his Foreign Ministry calls terrorists, echoing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Nano also has asked NATO to station troops along Albania's border with Kosovo to contain the conflict.
But Berisha, who was forced from power after last spring's unrest, charges that Nano and foreign powers have abandoned Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. His former National Intelligence Agency officers reportedly channeled weapons to ethnic Albanian fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA.
The International Crisis Group said in a July report that the KLA operates openly in the border towns and villages of northern Albania, which are Berisha's power base.
Berisha "is already exploiting the Kosovo conflict to mount a political comeback in Albania," charged the crisis group, a Washington-based watchdog agency chaired by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell.