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Albania: Unrest Reaches Tirana And The North

By Patrick Whalen

Prague, 13 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Albania's violent unrest has spilled from the southern part of the country into the capital Tirana and into Shkodra, the biggest town in the north.

News reports said raids were conducted last night and today on armories in and around Tirana and shooting could clearly be heard in the capital. The sky over Tirana was repeatedly lit with stolen flares.

These were the first such incidents in Tirana since streets protests over government involvement in get-rich-quick pyramid schemes erupted into violence, looting and lawlessness last month in southern Albania.

It was unclear if those seizing weapons in Tirana were supporters or opponents of President Sali Berisha, or if they were only taking the opportunity to arm themselves because of the growing chaos in the country.

Tirana residents were reported to have begun panic buying. Western correspondents said people lined up to get sacks of flour, eggs, fruit and other foodstuffs.

Authorities closed Tirana's airport -- Albania's only civilian airport -- for at least 48 hours because of gunfire in the area. The closure reportedly hampered efforts of foreign embassy employees and their families to leave Albania.

In Shkodra, northern Albania's biggest town, five people were reported killed and 20 others wounded when a mob ransacked armories there. The violence was the worst so far in the north since the unrest began.

In southern Albania, anti-authority forces were reported today to have taken control of another town, Korca, about 110 kilometers from Tirana. The official ATA news agency said two people were killed in violence there. Residents reported gunmen firing their weapons and driving tanks in the streets.

The U.S. military said it put a naval battle group on standby in the Adriatic Sea in case Washington decides to use troops to evacuate more than 2,000 Americans living in Albania. Bulgaria said it has three planes ready to evacuate nationals once the Tirana airport reopens. Rump Yugoslavia closed its Kosovo province and Montenegro border crossings with Albania, and Macedonia said it heightened the alert of forces on its border.

The mayhem came despite President Berisha's formation last night of an emergency reconciliation government consisting of his ruling Democratic Party, the ex-Communist opposition Socialists, and other parties. The move was seen as major concession by Berisha, who has come under heavy Western pressure to resolve the crisis peacefully.

New Prime Minister Bashkim Fino, a southerner and a Socialist, today called for European intervention to bring the situation under control. Fino said Albania is on the brink of civil war.

In a nationally televised address last night, Fino appealed for calm and called on Albanians to think of their country, not partisan interests.

A European mediation delegation led by former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzky was due in Tirana sometime today. Vranitzky said he expected to arrive via a military aircraft.

The European Union's humanitarian affairs minister, Emma Bonino, said she favored military intervention by Europe. But she said she doubted this would occur, and accused European capitals of not having an adequate policy for the problem.

It appeared unlikely that the new government's efforts -- or any diplomatic action taken in Tirana -- would pacify the insurgents.

There seems to be little cohesion among the armed groups, who appear to be a collection of anti-government militants, gangsters and thugs. Some fighters in the south have called for Berisha's resignation as a pre-condition to any talk of laying down their arms. But other groups appear to have little more on their agendas than breaking free from the grip of authority.

Western correspondents who have visited the south report that many of the insurgents are amply armed young men who seem intent on ransacking what little there is of Albania's wealth. They say the young fighters apparently believe they can take by force the wealth which was denied to their families by the failed investment schemes.

The best-known Albanian writer, novelist Ismail Kadare, said in an interview with "The New York Times" from Paris that his countrymen appear to have lost their serenity and are now devouring themselves.