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Militants press closer to capital as possible showdown looms

March 13, 1997

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ A new government that includes members of Albania’s opposition confronted the task today of quelling the country’s growing insurrection, but nothing short of the president’s resignation seemed capable of stopping the revolt.

A showdown loomed in the nation’s capital, Tirana, where gangs apparently supporting President Sali Berisha armed themselves Wednesday with guns from a vacated military academy. Police did nothing as the men calmly walked out of the school with AK-47 automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

A mob in a Tirana suburb stormed the Yzberisht barracks later in the day, seizing weapons, state television reported. It was unclear whether the looters were supporters of Berisha or opponents, advancing from their strongholds in the south.

Looters also attacked an arms depot near the industrial city of Elbasan, 22 miles southeast of Tirana, and carted away automatic weapons _ adding to the cache of guns and munitions seized by mobs the past two weeks.

Just 50 miles from the capital, mobs plundered an armory in the oil refining center of Ballshi, a vantage point that gives insurgents control over a main highway through southern Albania.

Western embassies evacuated staff and dependents. The U.S. Embassy sent out diplomats’ families and the State Department ordered home more than 160 non-essential personnel.

Americans working for U.S. government contractors also have been told to leave, said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

New Prime Minister Bashkim Fino _ a Socialist from the southern town of Gjirokastra _ acknowledged it was impossible to force rebels to put down their looted weapons to end the crisis, which has splintered the military and wiped out state security posts in the south.

``It is up to the will of the people to surrender the weapons,″ Fino told the private Greek television channel Mega in Gjirokastra.

The U.S. ambassador to Albania, Marisa Lino, made an unusual appeal in Albanian on state television, saying Washington backed Fino’s appointment. ``Democracy cannot be built from violence,″ she said.

Giving the post to Fino was a key part of Berisha’s attempt to calm the revolt pushing up from southern Albania. Berisha also agreed to elections by June and a government of all major parties.

That caretaker government was named Wednesday night. The prime post of interior minister was given to Belul Cela, of Berisha’s Democratic Party, and the defense minister will be Sheqir Vukaj of the Socialists.

The Socialists, who claim to have little control over the insurgents, have capitalized on the unrest by extracting compromises from Berisha.

The insurgents, whose fury is more anti-government than in favor of a particular political philosophy, say the president has met their demands in part. But the most common requests now heard are for Berisha to resign, and for reimbursements of money lost in high-risk investments.

The uprising began after the collapse of investment schemes in which nearly every Albanian family lost money. Protesters quickly focused their anger on Berisha, who they claim sanctioned the pyramid scheme organizers in exchange for kickbacks.

Fino, who met for an hour Wednesday with Berisha, appealed for European and American help to end the chaos.

The crisis threatens to engulf neighboring countries, particularly Italy and Greece, with another flood of refugees. Because there are sizable ethnic Albanian populations in Serbia’s Kosovo province and in Macedonia, it could further destabilize those chronically unstable areas and threaten peace throughout the Balkans.

Fino met in Gjirokastra with former Gen. Agim Gozhica, leader of the council that took control after the uprising. It was one of few direct contacts between Tirana and a rebel leader.

But Gozhica dismissed Fino’s appointment as a ``political trick″ and insisted that Berisha resign and hold talks with the insurgents and opposition parties.

``Unless this happens we will not turn in our weapons,″ he said.

In the meantime, armed bands are abandoning roadblocks and taking what they can. Looting continued in Gjirokastra and Saranda, another southern town.

According to Greek television network Antenna, an Olympic Airways plane on its way to Tirana to pick up Greek Ambassador Constantino Prevedoulakis was turned away from the Tirana airport Wednesday.

The report said that about 20 minutes before the plane was to land, the Albanian control tower radioed that the airport was closed because of unspecified problems. The Greek plane turned back.

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