Albania Leader Orders Tax Relief for Victims

LUSHNJE, Albania -- Albanian President Sali Berisha said Tuesday he was removing all taxes for two years for residents in this southern region to help them recover from losses to fraudulent pyramid investment schemes.

"I ordered the finance minister to lift taxes for two years in Lushnje to help farmers and citizens out of this crisis," he said in the southern town, which was swept by rioting after the get-rich-quick schemes collapsed in January.

Berisha entered the local theater to applause and chants of "Sali Berisha," but he was booed by a number of onlookers in the streets when he left 90 minutes later. A rock was hurled at his car as he drove off, one eyewitness said.

Police imposed heavy security for his visit. Plainclothes police officers swarmed over the town center. Armed guards were perched on rooftops overlooking the main square and police told drivers they could not park nearby.

"I have come not only to meet you but all Lushnje people," he told a meeting of selected supporters. "I share the concern of all investors who lost their money in the pyramid schemes."

Before entering the theater, he broke with security and waded into a crowd of some 2,000 people, shaking hands and expressing his interest in their plight.

"We'll do our best to solve the problem but Albanians must also accept their responsibility in this," he said.

Berisha launched his campaign to win back popular support on Saturday, candidly telling Albanians he had made mistakes in handling the pyramid scandal but also saying investors bore the main responsibility for putting their money in risky ventures.

He worked the same theme in his address to supporters at the Lushnje theater.

"I came to you to admit errors and mistakes by the ruling government, the party and by me," he said. "But I am open and I can tell you the people are also to blame."

He again expressed his anger at those in Lushnje who beat up Deputy Prime Minister Tritan Shehu when he came to discuss the pyramid collapse in January.

"I have never lost confidence in you, that is why I sent Mr. Shehu here to talk to you," he said. "But unfortunately a group of adventurers tried to take him hostage. I would award medals to those who saved him."

Facing a month of nationwide riots and protests, Berisha appealed for people to remember what Albania was like just five years ago after 45 years under a ruthless Stalinist regime.

He trotted out a string of promises for Lushnje, from declaring it a free trade zone to promising to help out the local soccer team, drawing huge applause from the audience. The Lushnje club was sponsored by Pellumb Xhaferri, the detained chief manager of one of the collapsed pyramid schemes.