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Tirana mourns nation in tatters while exodus, violence continue

March 16, 1997

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ In the square where the first stirrings of Albanian discontent began, a crowd mourned victims Sunday and appealed for an end to the anarchy that has forced thousands to flee and pushed the president into a corner.

Across the Adriatic Sea, Italian authorities said their ports were strained to the limit with more than 4,000 Albanian refugees. At least another 100 former military officers and sailors were en route in an Albanian navy torpedo boat they commandeered.

In Tirana, 2,000 people chanted ``Albania″ and waved flowers or linked hands in Skanderbeg Square, where the first anti-government protests were staged in December following the collapse of investment funds promising high yields.

Struggling to regain control in the capital, authorities formed a civilian militia to work alongside police at roadblocks and patrols. In an apparent attempt to balance its harsh tactics, the government declared Sunday a national day of mourning.

The crowd held aloft posters showing a bloody hand, with a slogan against violence, and the portrait of a teen-ager killed in Tirana last week.

People knelt twice for a moment of silence, and several women wept. Government security forces watched from rooftops above the sun-bathed square.

Nurie Rica, 45, said it was the first time her 3-year-old grandson, Jurgen, had been outside since shooting began in Tirana last week. She said she had faith in the new government formed last week, ``because it’s a coalition for reconciliation.″

But the appeals for peace were offset by continuing chaos and exodus elsewhere.

In the port of Durres, about 25 miles west of Tirana, police fired on a mob that tried to surge onto the docks in hopes of commandeering a vessel to take them to Italy. Four people were injured, hospital officials said.

Four Turkish navy snipers watched over the evacuation of 250 Turks, taken on small Zodiac vessels to a vessel off the coast. In Tirana, U.S. Marine helicopters continued to ferry Americans to a ship in the Adriatic.

In the southern port of Saranda, a witness identifying himself as Aslan Godo said a torpedo boat, snatched by the 100 former officers and sailors from the nearby naval base, was heading for Italy.

Two torpedo boats and two gunboats were in the hands of rebels. Scores were seen preparing to set sail on one of the gunboats.

An attempt by 30 armed insurgents to take a commercial ferry hostage off the coast of Saranda failed, according to Greek coast guard officials.

In the Netherlands, European Union foreign ministers, asked by the Albanian government for troops to restore order, could only agree to send a high-level evaluation mission Monday. They also agreed to send food and other humanitarian aid as soon as conditions stabilize.

The EU meeting had been delayed because of false rumors about the resignation of Albanian President Sali Berisha. His resignation is virtually the only demand that unites insurgents who have ransacked government armories in recent days and seized weapons.

Berisha and some members of his Democratic Party are accused of allowing risky investment schemes to get out of hand, or directly profiting from them. Almost every Albanian family lost money in them.

On Sunday, Berisha decreed an amnesty for 51 prisoners whose remaining term is less than two years, including opposition Socialist Party leader Fatos Nano.

Another TV statement Sunday said the government was trying to establish links with the councils that have taken control of many southern cities. With regular communication links disrupted, state broadcasting has become the only viable way for messages to reach the insurgents.

Early Sunday, an Albanian military vessel carrying about 500 Albanians ran aground in rough waters about a mile off the port of Brindisi, Italy, sparking panic among the refugees on board.

``Brindisi is completely saturated,″ Mayor Lorenzo Maggi warned before meeting with Italian Premier Romano Prodi.

Officials, bracing for more Albanians, were trying to figure out how to cope with them.

``We can’t throw them into the sea,″ Prodi said.

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