Tirana, 12 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The armed rebellion in Albania moved closer to the capital with armed civilians looting an armaments facility just 55 kilometers south of Tirana today. A crowd surged into the depot at Mjekes, near the town of Elbasan, to seize rifles and other arms. A token security guard outside the depot fired weapons into the air in a vain attempt to stop the pillaging.
The looters shouted slogans demanding the resignation of President Sali Berisha, who they blame for not protecting them from losing money in the collapse of high risk investment schemes in January. At least 40 people have died in the ensuing unrest, which erupted into an armed uprising almost two weeks ago.
Officials in Tirana tell RFE/RL that they expect fuel shortages to develop in the Albanian capital as rebel forces extend control over parts of the country. The officials tell our correspondent that rebels control main roads and bridges by which fuel supplies arrive from Greece, and they also say rebels control Albania's only oil refinery. Our correspondent also cites reports in Tirana of more military installations being looted by rebels, and groups of armed civilians being sighted within 30 kilometers of Tirana.
There are now reports of civilians attacking arms depots in the north of the country and seizing weapons. Amid rising concern of violence breaking out in the capital, several European countries say they are withdrawing all non-essential embassy personnel.
The anti-government rebels have now seized control of most of southern Albania and are ignoring a political deal between Berisha and opposition political parties giving them an amnesty if they surrender weapons. The deal also provides for creation of an interim all-party government to run the country until early elections by June.
Reports today say rebels in various towns have united in an umbrella group to demand a part in the ongoing political negotiations.
Italy today called for immediate formation of Albania's new national unity government, saying this is indispensable to stemming the rebellion.
Albania's prime-minister designate, Bashkim Fino, opened talks in Tirana today with Berisha and political party leaders on the line-up of the interim government. Going into the meeting Fino, of the opposition Socialist party, said the government must speak to the people with undertanding and ask them to hand in their weapons. Fino says nothing is ever achieved by coercion.
Former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzky says he will head back to Albania tomorrow on behalf of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to try and mediate the crisis.
Vranitzky made the announcement after meeting in Copenhagen with Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen to brief him on his earlier trip to Tirana last week. Denmark currently holds the rotating presidency of the OSCE. Vranitzky said he will remain in Albania through Friday.
Meanwhile the Western European Union, the EU's fledging defense
wing, said in Brussels today it is not ruling out the possibility of taking on some kind of role in ending the armed insurrection in Albania. The unrest was touched off by the collapse of high risk investment schemes in which many Albanians had placed their life savings.
The WEU's parliamentary commission says the WEU should be
prepared to carry out some operations in Albania, including
humanitarian and evacuation missions.