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Militants press closer to capital as possible showdown looms

March 12, 1997

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ The gunfire of anti-government insurgents pressed closer Wednesday to the capital, where gangs carried off weapons from two military sites and Western embassies organized evacuations.

Preparations for a showdown appeared to be taking shape, with gangs apparently supporting President Sali Berisha taking guns from a vacated military academy in Tirana, the capital. Police did nothing as the men calmly walked out with AK-47 automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

Hours later, state television reported that a group of people had stormed the Yzberisht barracks in a Tirana suburb Wednesday night and seized weapons. It was unclear whether they were supporters of Berisha.

The unrest came as Bashkim Fino, a 35-year-old Socialist from the southern town of Gjirokastra, was getting a first look at the difficulties facing him as prime minister. He acknowledged it was impossible to force rebels to put down their looted weapons.

Looters stormed 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.

And before dawn Wednesday, an armory was plundered in the oil refining center of Ballshi, just 50 miles from the capital, giving insurgents control over a main highway through southern Albania.

With the situation growing more grave, Western embassies evacuated staff and dependents. The U.S. Embassy planned to send out diplomats’ families. Many European nations took similar steps, and some countries ordered non-essential personnel out of the country.

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

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. He also agreed to elections by June and a government of all major parties.

That caretaker government was named Wednesday night. The key 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.

No concessions, however, appear able to halt the insurrection as long as Berisha remains in charge.

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 partially has met their demands. 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 in Albania.

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 also could further destabilize those chronically unstable areas and threaten peace throughout the Balkans.

But Fino acknowledged that there was no way to forcibly end the rebellion, which has splintered the military and wiped out state security operations 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, where he served as mayor until last year.

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.

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