Strasbourg, 5 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Council of Europe sent a mission to Tirana today to try to help restore peace and dialogue between the Albanian government and opposition. A massive security operation involving troops with tanks and other armored vehicles is continuing today in southern Albania. The operation is aimed at restoring law and order following anti-government rioting.
The Council's four-member delegation is headed by the vice president of the 40-state body's parliamentary assembly, Rene van der Linden of the Netherlands. Delegates are expected to meet President Sali Berisha and seek contact with all political forces during their two-day visit.
The council's Secretary-General, Daniel Tarchys, in a message to the Albanian government, expressed concern that the state of emergency in Albania threatened human rights and freedom of movement and expression.
Tarchys reminded Tirana authorities they were bound by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms and he had to inform the council of the measures they were taking. Albania has been a party to the convention since October.
Meanwhile, Albania has called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to postpone its fact-finding mission to Albania, saying "This is not the time."
The European Union (EU) has also scheduled to send a delegation to Albania tomorrow, led by Dutch Foreign Minister Hans Van Mierlo. There is no word as to any changes in that plan.
Correspondents and eyewitnesses say that in the coastal town of Sarande, anti-government protesters have commandeered a Russian-made battle tank in anticipation of an assault by army troops and police.
A correspondent in the town says some 400 heavily armed protesters are guarding entrances to the port and have set up roadblocks. The correspondent has seen trucks and cars carrying weapons and explosives into the port, mostly looted from state arsenals. Automatic weapons fire can be heard in the area.
Separately, a photographer says he saw Albanian MIG warplanes drop a bomb next to two houses in the village of Livena, near Sarande today and saw smoke from two more bombs. Albania's defense ministry has denied ordering jets to bomb civilian protesters and insists the planes are on reconnassiance missions. Correspondents say fighters in Sarande commandeered air defense artillery at a naval base to fire back at the passing planes.
In the village of Stjar, near Sarande, army soldiers fought with armed civilians this morning before, reports say, withdrawing. Four civilians and two soldiers were reported wounded. Army tanks also are deploying closer to the port city of Vlore further north, scene of some of the worst recent violence which has left at least 20 dead.
Armed civilian groups are defying a state of emergency imposed on Sunday. Albania has been rocked by unrest since January when many people lost money in the collapse of investment schemes.
In Vatican City, Pope John Paul urged pilgrims in Saint Peter's Square today to pray for Albania. During his weekly audience, the Roman Catholic pontiff dedicated his thoughts to the crisis in Albania, where Catholics make up 10
percent of the Muslim-majority population.
Last Saturday, the pope received the new Albanian ambassador to the Holy See, Pjeter Ndoc Pepa, and called for a dialogue between "the responsible forces of society" in favor of democracy in Albania.