Gunfire broke out Monday, and tanks lumbered through Albania's capital after protesters carried the bodies of a slain politician and two others to the office of Prime Minister Fatos Nano, whom the opposition blames for the deaths.
Thousands of mourners scattered in terror as guards inside the main government building began firing at those who brought the bodies of opposition leader Azem Hajdari and two others to Nano's office following a service at Skanderbeg Square.The situation rapidly deteriorated, and within an hour, the government appeared to be losing control of the capital. Thousands of people were milling about Skanderbeg Square, firing weapons in the air.
The unrest threatened a repeat of nationwide riots that swept the country last year after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes that cost many Albanians their life's savings.
Opposition leader Sali Berisha, who has called for Nano's immediate resignation, appealed for calm Monday in a televised address. He urged his followers to seek a political solution to "this deep crisis."
There was little sign of police or any government authority. Calls to the prime minister's office and the Interior Ministry went unanswered.
Local radio reported that "civilian patrols" were taking up positions near banks and government facilities to protect them from looters.
Monday's gunfire, in which at least three protesters were wounded, triggered what appeared to be a spontaneous uprising throughout Tirana.
One group stormed the government's television studios, sending many of the staff fleeing. An unidentified man appeared on television, announcing "we have taken over."
Opposition members seized at least four government tanks, and civilians climbed atop the vehicles while they moved down the streets.
A private television reported Monday afternoon that crowds had also entered the parliament building.
Young men were breaking into shops, which had closed for Hajdari's funeral, and could be seen carrying off jeans and other goods.
Monday's violence erupted after a funeral service for Hajdari and his bodyguard - slain Saturday outside their Democratic Party headquarters - and a protester who was killed during rioting Sunday.
During the funeral, Berisha repeated allegations that Nano was responsible for Hajdari's death and called for a "day of peace" to honor the charismatic former student leader.
After the ceremony, the crowd carried the bodies - each in a wooden coffin - down the capital's main street to the prime minister's office, which was attacked and set afire on Sunday.
The building appeared deserted. Suddenly, as mourners placed the coffins at the entrance, gunfire broke out, apparently from guards inside the building. Hundreds of terrified marchers trampled over one another to escape.
An opposition radio station reported Monday that Nano had resigned. The local office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denied the report.
The United States and the European Union have expressed fear that the turmoil could spread elsewhere in the Balkans, including the Serbian province of Kosovo. Berisha has openly supported Kosovo Albanian rebels.