Albanian President Quits Loud Crowd

TIRANA, Albania -- Albanian President Sali Berisha, poised to address a crowd of cheering, right-wing Democratic supporters, quit Tirana's main square Tuesday surrounded by security guards amid fears for his safety.

Berisha had made his way on foot from the town hall on central Skanderbeg Square through a crowd of around 6,000 sympathizers towards the Palace of Culture, damaged Sunday in a clash between protesters and riot police.

As the crowd pressed in toward Berisha, security guards apparently fearing the situation could get out of control rushed him up the steps of the Palace of Culture and inside the building, now used mainly as a bingo hall.

The expectant throng shouted, "We want Berisha," as workers rigged up a sound system for the president's speech.

But Tirana Mayor Albert Brojka instead appeared to tell supporters to disperse peacefully, indicating the president had left. Within minutes, roads around the square were reopened to the bustling traffic of cars and horse-drawn carts.

Berisha's Democrats, in an apparent bid to avoid any escalation of the violence which has recently hit Albania following the collapse of pyramid investment schemes, dropped their original plans to stage the protest outside opposition Socialist Party headquarters.

Three cordons of riot police stood in front of the Socialist headquarters, located across from the Palace of Culture, in case the crowd moved toward the rival party building. There was no trouble and the police later left.

The Democrats, who won a huge victory in controversial elections last May boycotted by the Socialists, are seeking to deflate growing anger over the pyramid schemes into which thousands sank their savings. Protests have swept the Balkan state in nearly three weeks as investors face the prospect of losing all their money.

Economists estimate that more than $1 billion may have been plunged into the high-yielding pyramid schemes, which mushroomed across Albania following the fall of the old communist regime in 1990. The International Monetary Fund has offered to help the Albanian government overcome the financial crisis, an IMF official said Tuesday.

"The IMF will do everything it can to assist the government in resolving the crisis," said the IMF's resident representative in Albania, John King.

Scores of people were hurt at a demonstration in Skanderbeg Square on Sunday, and protesters set fire to government buildings and Democratic Party offices in towns in the south.