Candidate shot, supporter killed by gunfire at Albania election polling station

TIRANA, Albania (AP) - An Albanian political candidate was shot and a supporter of a rival party killed in an exchange of gunfire near a polling station, the police said on Sunday, as the country held crucial elections already marred by a dispute that could leave the outcome up in the air.

Both conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his close rival, Socialist leader Edi Rama, have hopes for eventual entry to the European Union, and the election is seen as a test of whether the country can run a fair and safe vote.

An EU diplomat condemned the violence.

There were few immediate details, but a police spokesman said that Mr Gjon Gjoni, 53, died after being shot in an exchange of fire with Mhill Fufi, 49, a candidate for Berisha's governing Democratic Party. An opposition party leader identified Mr Gjoni as a supporter.

Another man, Mr Kastriot Fufi, was also injured. It was not immediately clear if he and the candidate were related.

The shooting in the city of Lac started with an argument, said police spokesman Tefik Sulejmani, who gave few other details.

Once one of the world's hardest-line communist countries, the impoverished country has had a rocky road to democracy, plagued by corruption and elections marred by violence and vote-rigging.

The month-long contest had been relatively calm until election day, though there had been reports of civil servants and even schoolchildren being pressured to attend pro-government rallies.

Mr Ilir Meta, the leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration, said the dead man was a supporter and directly blamed the police and "criminal elements" of the ruling Democrats of exerting pressure at polling stations.

"Sali Berisha is not Albania's premier any more. He cannot leave power without shedding blood," said Mr Meta.

The EU's top diplomat in Albania took a hard stand on the violence.

"I want to say something very clear, very firm. Among the international and European standards for elections, there is the refusal of violence," said Mr Ettore Sequi, the EU ambassador to Tirana.

Some 3.3 million registered voters are eligible to cast their ballots in the eighth national polls since the fall of communism in 1990.

The country's president called for unity.

"Peace, calm, citizens' life is important. I appeal for calm and maturity because, true we vote for different parties, but we are one nation," Mr Bujar Nishani said.

Because of a battle over the country's election commission, it is uncertain when results will be announced, though the law mandates they be revealed no later than three days after the vote.

Mr Rama postponed voting to head to Lac, about 60km north-west of the capital Tirana.

Mr Berisha invited all Albanians to take part in the vote and turn Sunday "into a day of festivities and good understanding".

"I assure you that your vote will be fully respected," Mr Berisha told reporters after casting his ballot.

The Premier declined to comment on the killing, saying he needed more information first.

Following aggressive campaigns by both Mr Berisha's Democrats and the Socialists, streets in the capital of Tirana were uncommonly empty, but had long queues of people at polling stations.

The country's seven-member election commission, which prepares and holds votes, is down by three people, meaning it may be unable to certify the election. If the election is not certified, it means Parliament cannot be convened and no government formed.

In April, one of Mr Berisha's main government allies withdrew from the coalition to join forces with the opposition. He was then ousted and replaced at the election commission by Mr Berisha's Democrats. That move drew sharp criticism from the United States and the EU, who said it would erode people's confidence in the electoral process.

Three members affiliated with the opposition withdrew in protest, leaving the commission short of the people necessary for 5-2 approval. They have said they would consider returning to the commission to certify the election once they see the results.

Albania joined Nato in 2009 but has failed to gain candidate status from the EU, which is pressing for broader democratic reforms and an improved election record.

Some 400 international observers and about 8,000 local ones are monitoring the voting.