VLORE, Albania — With the most prosperous region of his country in the hands of well-armed insurgents, Albanian President Sali Berisha agreed Sunday to form a new "government of national reconciliation" and hold fresh elections.
Berisha's concession was greeted here in the heart of the rebellious south with a deafening unloading of celebratory machine-gun fire and grenade explosions. But the rebels said they will not end their mutiny until Berisha is out of office.
"There will be no peace as long as Berisha is in the [presidential] chair," said Skender Sera, a retired army general who is organizing the defense of Vlore, the largest city under rebel control.
Berisha made his proposal in Tirana, the capital, under pressure from Western mediators alarmed at the prospect of an exodus of refugees fleeing the violence in this poverty-racked nation.
In addition to agreeing to elections and the seating of a new government, the rightist president for the first time indicated he is willing to work with the opposition Socialist Party, whose leaders he called "Red terrorists" as recently as last week. The Socialists have boycotted parliament for the last 10 months in protest over fraudulent elections in May that gave Berisha an overwhelming majority in the legislature.
Berisha's offer represented the biggest concession he has made since anger last month over collapsed pyramid schemes escalated into full-fledged revolt. But it was not clear if it will resolve the crisis: Berisha's opponents do not trust him, and he gave few details on how or when the new government will be formed, or by whom.
The announcement came during an extraordinary televised meeting between Berisha and representatives of nine opposition parties, who could be seen scribbling furiously--apparently because it was the first they had heard of the proposal. Berisha, seated at the head of a U-shaped table, at times raised his voice and cut off his opponents, who often seemed impatient or confused.
Berisha and the parties formalized the agreement Sunday afternoon, signing a nine-point accord that provided for elections to be held by June under international monitoring. Berisha had insisted earlier on elections within 45 days, while the opposition argued that more time would be necessary for a fair poll.
"This is a big step," Prech Zogaj, representing the opposition Democratic Alliance, said after Berisha made his offer. "Tomorrow will be a different day in Albania."
Socialist leaders at the meeting appeared less enthusiastic. Berisha has been masterful at splitting his opposition, and Sunday's maneuvers may have been more of the same.
"We have come very close to civil war," Socialist leader Pandeli Majko said, clearly irritating Berisha. "But this should not start in parliament but in Vlore. . . . I see this country divided between north and south."
Politically, much of the south has maintained loyalty to the Communists--renamed the Socialists--while Berisha's right-wing Democratic Party of Albania draws its support from his homeland, Albania's north.
In Vlore, rebel leaders said they were pleased to see what they regarded as the weakening of Berisha. Young men fired their automatic weapons into the air, and boys hurled grenades and dynamite onto roads in the Adriatic port city.
But new elections and a caretaker government are not enough, the leaders said.
"There is no doubt that this is a big success," said Sera, the head of rebel defense for Vlore. "It shows how strong the people are. But what is in Berisha's mind? One day he says one thing, the next day something else."
Sera said he and other retired and defecting military officers who have joined the rebels are trying to impose order on gangs of young men who, intoxicated with their newfound firepower thanks to looted arsenals, are roaming the streets of Vlore.
In the rutted back roads leading into Vlore and in the city itself, the armed men have set up makeshift roadblocks every few hundred yards. So chaotic is their operation that often one man at a roadblock waves a car on even as another orders it to stop. Failure to comply usually means gunfire overhead.
At the Mifolit bridge, a strategic point about 10 miles north of Vlore on the main road to government-held territory, the group of young rebels on guard appeared unruly and agitated. Boys who looked about 16 carried automatic rifles. One pointed his weapon at an American reporter and laughed.
"It is very difficult to discipline these people," conceded Petrut Agaj, a retired naval commander who is trying to whip the rebels into shape. "These people are used to operating on their own, and now it is difficult to rein them in."
In addition to machine guns, the rebels are equipped with antitank cannons, mines and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
From the talk in Vlore, the rebels have no intention of turning in their weapons while Berisha is in office. Any disarmament would have to be conducted by an independent European organization, rebel leaders said.
Berisha, as part of Sunday's agreement, extended by a week a two-day cease-fire period he had declared for surrendering weapons and accepting amnesty.
"What Albania needs more than anything else is national reconciliation," Berisha said in the televised meeting. "This message should help all the people of Albania calm down. . . . There is no doubt that this message is going to Vlore and hundreds of thousands of families living in a state of terror, in a state of pain."