Albanian interior minister rejects opposition calls to resign

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania’s interior minister on Wednesday rejected opposition calls for him to resign over his brother’s drugs conviction in Italy, saying he had not hidden the conviction nor sought to protect his brother from justice.

A week of accusations by the Democratic Party against Fatmir Xhafaj, one of the architects of the judiciary reform key to Albania’s entry into the European Union, came as the EU told Albania to be tough on crime before it will approve entry talks.

It also coincided with the house arrest of Xhafaj’s predecessor, Saimir Tahiri, over charges of drug trafficking and corruption because of his alleged ties to some distant cousins arrested in Italy for drug trafficking.

Prime Minister Edi Rama, visiting Berlin and Paris to try to convince its leaders that Tirana deserves membership talks, has seen his job grow harder as the allegations raise question marks over Albania’s governance standards.

Denying accusations he had hid his brother’s conviction or protected him from the law, Xhafaj said his brother’s surrender in Italy for his 2002 drug conviction denied him the possibility of showing he would have lived up to his job if required.

He said he was being attacked by a part of the corrupt elite frightened by the vetting of judges, and successes against crime and drug trafficking under his watch.

“I would like to guarantee them all that even if I had quit yesterday what has been done by my colleagues, the international partners and myself cannot be undone,” Xhafaj told reporters.

Earlier a small group of opposition supporters rallied below his office to ask him to resign and threw eggs at the building. The opposition has also released an audio recording purporting to show Xhafaj’s brother knew about drug deals in his home town.

“We won’t stop until Xhafaj quits, and Rama quits,” said Edi Paloka, the Democrat’s deputy chairman. “This has just started.”

Rama said a technical analysis had shown the video was fake and it was enough for him to back Xhafaj. “If it is proved, those who staged this hideous game to ... smear Albania in the eyes of the world, should pay,” Rama said.

Reporting by Benet Koleka, Editing by Mark Potter