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TIRANA (Reuters) -- Gunmen have shot and killed an Albanian opposition Socialist Party lawmaker, police said, as the west Balkan country prepares to hold elections seen as crucial in its bid for European Union accession.

The killing of Fatmir Xhindi, 49, is likely to heighten tension ahead of the June 28 general elections, which pit the ruling Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha against the main opposition Socialist Party led by Edi Rama.

Albania is one of Europe's poorest countries and faces an uphill struggle to join the EU, which remains to be convinced of its democratic credentials. The country formally applied for EU membership on April 28.

The Interior Ministry said Xhindi was shot inside the courtyard of his own home just after parking his car.

"He was shot and killed with six bullets and died on the way to hospital," said police spokesman Klodian Branko, quoting from a statement by police in Fier, the regional center near Roskovec in southern Albania where Xhindi was killed.

Xhindi is the second lawmaker to be killed in Albania since the fall of communism in 1990. The assassination of Democratic Party lawmaker Azem Hajdari in September 1998 enraged his supporters, who took over government offices and the public television broadcaster for several days.

The Socialists said they were shocked by Xhindi's killing.

Describing him as a "symbol of maturity and friendship who exuded benevolence," senior Socialist Gramoz Ruci said he did not exclude the possibility that the killing was politically motivated.

Parliament's speaker Jozefina Topalli, a Democrat, and Socialist Party leader Edi Rama traveled to Roskovec to comfort Xhindi's family.

Rama said the Socialists were "impatiently waiting" for police to shed light on the killing.

No violence was reported.
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