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Shaken Americans tell of leaving a crumbling country

March 14, 1997

ABOARD THE USS NASSAU (AP) _ Hene Beqiri said she cried as she left Albania and, like other Americans lifted to safety by U.S. helicopters on Friday, was stunned at how quickly the Balkan country had disintegrated.

The 26-year-old Beqiri, whose father emigrated to Worcester, Mass., in 1968, had been working for Albanian television for the past 7 1/2 months.

With gunmen roaming the streets in recent days, she was taken in for protection by her neighbors, who escorted her to the U.S. Embassy housing compound to await the Chinook helicopters.

``I was crying. I am afraid for the people I left there,″ Beqiri said.

``The ammunition has to run out sooner or later,″ she said. ``That’s the only thing that’s going to save them.″

Among those evacuated was a South African woman shot in the shoulder near the U.S. Embassy, Navy Cmdr. Henry Golden said.

The U.S. evacuation was suspended Friday after helicopters came under fire in the capital, Tirana.

Fire in the direction of U.S. helicopters came from the ground, said Marine Col. Emerson Gardner, commander of the operation. A Cobra gunship returned fire, officers said.

An Italian AB-212 helicopter was hit by gunfire early Friday during an evacuation mission, but no one aboard was injured, the Defense Ministry said in Rome. Italian aviators had reported gunfire Thursday night during the height of Italy’s evacuation of around 1,000 foreign nationals.

``There are a lot of people with weapons and a lot of indiscriminate firing,″ said Marine Col. Emerson Gardner, commander of the U.S. evacuation operation.

By late afternoon, U.S. forces had taken out 379 people and sent 169 Marines into the embassy in Tirana and a compound where diplomats live. At least 66 others were evacuated by the Italians.

Fifty-eight people were awaiting evacuation and may be taken out Saturday.

The Nassau, a helicopter carrier, was part of a Marine amphibious unit stationed in the Adriatic. The South African woman was treated aboard the Nassau for her wound.

``It’s a bit unnerving all this firing going on,″ said Gardner. ``The situation on the ground I call anarchy. Everyone seems to have weapons.″

One of the first Americans to leave was Joann Perleberg, 33, a high school social studies teacher from Milwaukee, Wis., who had come to Tirana March 3 to adopt a 2-year-old girl.

``It was very scary because we didn’t know who would get out,″ she said, holding little Ermira. ``Some day, I would like her to see the country.″

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