Anti-government protesters in Albania’s capital, Tirana, hurled gasoline grenades and flares at riot police in front of the main government building and national police headquarters Monday, hours after U.S. diplomats and European Union lawmakers appealed for order and calm.

Thousands of demonstrators, many holding umbrellas, marched in driving rain as thick clouds of white smoke from flares hung above them at times. Police officers did not respond to the violence.

“It is a march of protest against the illegitimate government,” said Lulzim Basha, leader of the Opposition centre-right Democratic Party.

The protesters headed to five locations “symbolizing the institutions captured” by the Socialist government of Edi Rama, Basha said in an address to protesters: the prime minister’s office, the national police headquarters, parliament, the Interior Ministry and the Tirana city police department, where 50 opposition demonstrators were arrested after a violent protest on Saturday.

As they marched, the protesters hurled Molotov cocktails, flares and firecrackers, and broke windows at the police buildings.

Police kept a low profile, posting few officers in front of the buildings. One police officer was injured at the national police headquarters, according to a police statement.

Corruption, vote-stealing accusations

Opposition parties have been holding protests since mid-February, accusing government officials of corruption and of stealing votes in the parliamentary election two years ago. They are demanding an early election and calling for a temporary government to run Albania until then. 

The governing Socialists have 74 seats in the 140-seat parliament.

Democratic Party Leader Lulzim Basha says people are protesting the country’s ‘illegitimate government.’ (Florion Goga/Reuters)

Demonstrations over the weekend also turned hostile, with protesters showering police officers with firebombs while police responded with tear gas. Injuries were reported on both sides.

Prime Minister Edi Rama denounced the violent behaviour of protesters, saying: “Albania is damaged.”

Before Monday’s protest, the Interior Ministry said that the Opposition would “try to repeat the same acts of violence.”

But the Democratic Party accused the government of trying to stir up “confrontation, conflict and fear among citizens.”

“Today we showed there is no power on Earth to stop us in our cause for free and fair elections,” Basha said at the end of the march.

A protester throws a tear gas canister back at police during an anti-government protest in Tirana. (Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty Images)

A U.S. Embassy statement in Tirana on Monday called on the Democratic Party to condemn violence and “ensure that all future public protests are orderly and peaceful.”

“Violent demonstrations are damaging Albania’s democratic reform efforts and the country’s prospects for moving forward on the EU path,” it said, urging them to “engage in a constructive dialogue aimed at bringing an end to the political impasse.”

Clashes could give ‘wrong impression’

European parliamentarians also called on Albanians “to restrain from all forms of violence” because recent clashes “could give the wrong impression that Albania is not ready for the opening of the accession negotiations in June this year.”

Italian, German and British embassies also called for a peaceful protest and for all sides to enter into dialogue.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, seen here at a meeting in Germany on April 29, has denounced the violent clashes, calling the country ‘damaged.’ (Annegret Hilse/Reuters)

The leaders of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) called “for utmost restraint and dialogue.” The OSCE describes itself as the world’s largest regional security organization. It is comprised of 57 states, and works for peace and democracy.

The OSCE also denounced “attempted intimidation” directed at the group’s presence in Albania. On Sunday, threatening words were written on the building where the OSCE ambassador lives in Tirana.

Albania expects to hear in June whether the EU will grant its request to launch full membership negotiations.