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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Albania Moves Toward June Election

TIRANA, Albania -- Albania moved a step closer to early elections Thursday as international mediator Franz Vranitzky pursued his mission to restore stability and order.

Vranitzky said leaders of the government and political parties had agreed after two days of talks that early elections should be held on June 29, a breakthrough the former Austrian chancellor called "significant."

"I think that we have achieved some progress today," said Vranitzky, envoy of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. "They are all of the opinion that the elections should take place on June 29."

About 300 people have been killed and more than 700 injured in a spasm of armed violence that erupted after fraudulent investment schemes collapsed earlier this year, wiping out the life savings of many Albanians.

The uprising in Europe's poorest country began in the south, which remains under the control of rebels.

An emergency all-party government created during the height of the crisis in March agreed early elections were crucial to restoring order. But the rival parties have made almost no progress on drafting an election law.

Vranitzky, shuttling across Tirana in his closely-guarded black limousine, said it was unrealistic to expect binding agreements in a matter of hours.

The current crisis in Albania has its roots in a contested election result in May 1996.

Rightist President Sali Berisha won 87 percent of the vote but opposition parties refused to accept the results, saying there was widespread fraud. International observers said there were irregularities.

Vranitzky scrapped a visit to the rebel-held south Thursday, saying he wanted to push forward efforts to set up the elections. But he admitted security was also a factor.

Meanwhile, a multinational security mission to protect humanitarian aid convoys spread further across the country as Italian marines reached the key rebel stronghold of Vlore.

About 1,700 Italian, French, Spanish, Greek and Turkish troops have arrived in Albania over the last three days. Romania, Austria and Denmark will also contribute soldiers to the UN-backed mission, which will grow to 6,000 within three weeks. A small force of 25 Italian marines arrived in the port of Vlore, 150 kilometers south of Tirana, to be greeted warmly by a group of about 50 Albanians. Some of the locals shouted "Down with Berisha" while the heavily-armed marines inspected the harbor.

"We are here to protect the aid convoys," said one Italian soldier as the sound of automatic gunfire in the distance echoed through the port. "This is my job. I am not afraid."