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By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Albanian opposition Socialist Party supporters launched their latest protest Friday to demand the government either recount the vote in a controversial June 28 election or hold another.
Socialist Party leader Edi Rama accused Prime Minister Sali Berisha of the Democratic Party of rigging the parliamentary elections to "steal Albania's wealth."
The Socialists lost to Berisha in the tightest race since Albania abandoned communism, but have not accepted the result and refuse to enter parliament unless a number of ballot boxes, ruled "irregular" by election authorities, are opened.
They say the votes inside would give them victory overall. Berisha's Democrats have just 70 seats in the 140-seat parliament, and the Socialists 66. The Democrats rule with support from the four Socialist Integration Movement seats.
Holding banners saying "I want to see my vote" and "Where is my vote?," supporters of the Socialists, their allies and two centre-right parties marched down Tirana's main boulevard to gather in front of Berisha's offices.
The Socialists pitched tents in the street and handed out coffee and tea to hundreds of supporters determined to spend the night near Berisha's office. The protest is planned to continue over the weekend.
"Now more than ever we want to prove that the freedom of the vote and the right to count it honestly cannot be bought, sold or negotiated," Rama told the cheering crowd.
"Unless the ballot boxes are opened, we will not just refuse to return to parliament, but shall escalate our protest. If the boxes are not opened, we shall powerfully call for the government to go and call for snap elections," Rama said.
Rama, mayor of Tirana, claimed Berisha had stifled the judiciary, distorted the media and ruined free competition. Each man accuses the other of corruption.
Berisha has said it would be illegal to open the ballot boxes and said European Union foreign ministers had approved of the election by accepting Albania's application, made shortly before the polls, for candidate status to the affluent bloc.
This week, six EU ambassadors told Tirana it should be more serious in fighting corruption.
"Opening the ballots will not happen either here on land or in the sky," Berisha told parliament. "This coalition is going to run its full term." Albania is the only Balkan country headed for a GDP growth this year, of two percent.
Western observers said the June vote was an improvement on previous elections but had fallen short of the highest international standards. The count was delayed because of quarrels over breaches of procedure.
"Our international friends rightfully ask that we return to parliament. We want to be there, too. But not to endorse this ugly history of manipulations and pave the way for it to be repeated in the future," Rama said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)