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Rows over reforms, election bog down Albania's EU accession talks

By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's political parties snuffed out hopes on Saturday for a compromise that would keep open the Balkan state's path to European Union membership after Brussels warned that an opposition boycott of parliament put accession talks at risk.

The Democratic Party's two-week-long protest in a tent outside Prime Minister Edi Rama's office and its boycott of parliament have stalled the creation of bodies that would vet 750 judges and prosecutors. Reform of the judiciary is a key condition set by the EU for starting accession talks.

The ruling coalition had offered to sit down for talks with the Democrats, who want a technocratic government to take over before free parliamentary elections on June 18, ahead of a visit on Friday by the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

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Rama said on Saturday that the coalition had been elected to govern but welcomed dialogue. "We are ready to answer to every request of the opposition. What converges in the ... national and public interest, we shall do together," Rama told reporters.

He was speaking at the launch of a petition supporting plans to vet judges and build a clean judiciary able to fight endemic corruption in one of Europe's poorest countries.

Rama has said the Democrats are calling for free elections to hide their real intention of defending corrupt justice officials.

Across Tirana's main boulevard on a sunny day, Democrat leader Lulzim Basha said that if Rama did not agree to a technocratic government, "the people's wave will surround you, the people's wave will topple you".

The Democrats would never agree to vetting of judges "to protect yourself and your ministers", he said.

The tent protest has so far been peaceful even though Basha once called on supporters to puncture car tires, break windows and punch anyone who mistreated them.

Mogherini told NATO member Albania it had a real chance of clinching accession talks once the vetting process started.

"I have been very clear in saying that those who seek to delay and dilute key reforms are putting the European Union integration agenda at risk," she told a news conference.

"Boycott of the parliament means blocking the establishment of the (judicial) vetting commissions and de facto stops Albania's progress towards the European Union."

Her comments were rejected by Basha, who said: "They (the EU) should keep the rubbish to themselves."

A European diplomat said western countries were worried by the opposition boycott and had encouraged dialogue, because "there appeared to be no exit strategy for Basha".

"Work needs to resume in parliament. It is a crucial year for Albania to make progress but this is much slower than we expected," the diplomat told Reuters.

(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Catherine Evans)