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Italian soldiers serenade Tirana, police move in on criminals

July 27, 1997

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ As their French colleagues prepared to board ship and leave Albania on Sunday, Italian soldiers in feathered caps and dress uniforms serenaded the people of Tirana with trumpets and songs.

``It is our last greeting to the Albanian people,″ said Col. Giovanni Bernardi, the spokesman for the Italian-led multinational force in Albania. ``We thought that after these tragic days, singing songs and giving some amusement was very important.″

The eight-nation force, which reached 7,000 troops at its peak, was deployed in April to safeguard humanitarian aid shipments and protect foreign observers monitoring the parliamentary elections on June 29 and July 6. The force began withdrawing in mid-July.

Last week, the parliament convened for the first time and a new government was formed. Its most urgent task is to stem the chaos and violence that have gripped the country since March, when protests against failed pyramid schemes burst into armed rebellion and rampant criminality. More than 1,800 people have been killed since the unrest started, and about 10 people are killed each day.

At least 12 people have been killed across the country over the past 24 hours, the Interior Ministry said Sunday morning. Six of the deaths were in Berat, 45 miles south of Tirana, where gang wars over the past two weeks have sent civilians fleeing for refuge outside town.

Four gunmen and one policeman were killed in a shootout on Saturday in Lezha, 35 miles north of Tirana, after police ordered the car carrying the gunmen to stop.

A battle between rival gangs in the southern port of Vlora raged for five hours on Saturday, local hospital officials said, but they had no news of any casualties.

The new interior minister, Neritan Ceka, announced the first formal move in the police offensive against crime. Special police on Saturday arrested 8 gunmen who had been robbing people on the road between Tirana and Peshkopi, about 40 miles to the northeast. One gunman was killed and another wounded in a shootout with police.

As police moved in on criminals, foreign forces continued to leave. About 328 French and 56 Danish soldiers left the western port of Durres on Sunday evening. It was the first French contingent to pull out of the chaos-torn country.

One hundred and seven members of Austria’s contingent arrived in Vienna by train on Sunday afternoon. About 10 will remain in Tirana until the force completes its withdrawal.

Meanwhile, about 40 members of Italy’s Bersaglieri troops marched down Tirana’s main street, singing and playing their horns. They were followed by a gaggle of children and cheered on by bystanders. The last Italian forces are scheduled to pull out by Aug. 11.

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