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Disarming of Albanians a Puzzle as Chaos Reigns

Balkans: Head of state and opposition pick a premier. Weapons are reportedly looted by president's supporters.

March 12, 1997|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VLORE, Albania — The women on Osman Haxhiu Street hide in their apartments to avoid the hoodlums with guns who reign over this rebel stronghold. They step out in the morning only to look for food and are forced to dip into precious reserves of flour and canned peas.

"Criminals are now in control of the weapons," sighed retired seamstress Flora Kampjeli, whose windows have been shot out and who is desperate to send her son to Italy.

About 20 miles to the north in the city of Fier, where the government remains in charge, the sentiment is much the same. After dark, men armed by the secret police prowl the streets and fill the night with gunfire.

As insurrection spread into new areas of Albania on Tuesday, the country reached a level of anarchy that underscores the futility of efforts to find a political solution when civilian leaders clearly have no sway over the people with guns.

In stormy, marathon sessions in the capital, Tirana, President Sali Berisha continued to squabble with opposition politicians over the naming of a new "government of national reconciliation." After an opposition politician was selected as prime minister Tuesday night, the talks were hung up over which party will occupy the sensitive Interior Ministry post. But there is growing realization that no new government will have sufficient authority or influence to end the violence or disarm the people.

With the political wrangling in the background, additional southern cities were said to be in rebellion and new looting of weapons--this time by pro-Berisha forces in the north--was reported.

"It takes four hours to name a minister, two hours to take a town," Blendi Gonxhe, the frustrated spokesman of the opposition Forum for Democracy, said in Tirana. "There is a whole delirium now to take weapons. People in the south and in the north see that the people in Tirana can't solve the problem."

France and Italy, nervous that armed rebellion was getting nearer to the capital, ordered the evacuation of nonessential personnel from their embassies, while Britain and Germany urged their citizens to leave the country.

The insurrection sweeping Albania, which has claimed more than 40 lives, started with the collapse earlier this year of fraudulent pyramid schemes. Hundreds of thousands of Albanians lost their life savings and turned on the government, which some believe profited from the schemes. Riots escalated, police abandoned towns and armed demonstrators took over, seizing army weapons in the process.

Twelve cities, an arms factory and an air base, complete with a fleet of MIG fighters, have been taken over by opposition forces, who run the gamut from civilian politicians to armed rebels, with criminals and gangsters filling the void in some places, such as Vlore.

A bustling Adriatic port town about 65 miles south of the capital, Vlore has long been a center for drug and people smugglers who now seem to be taking advantage of the political chaos. Gangsters armed with automatic rifles and supposedly looking for spies and secret police swagger through the streets, stop cars at will and wave weapons at motorists. In a hazardous display of macho bravura, they shoot off their guns and toss grenades day and night.

People like Kampjeli, the retired seamstress, live as virtual hostages. They emerge from their homes for occasional visits with friends and exist in isolation fed by rumors and paranoia.

"After noon, I don't like to walk out," Kampjeli said.

Kampjeli's friend, Katerina Dhimigjoka, has kept her 17-year-old daughter, Rezarta, inside almost constantly since the trouble began. The girl watches television and reads, but the telephones no longer work. She hasn't communicated with friends for weeks.

"The situation is very bad and I don't know when it will start to get better," said Dhimigjoka, a 54-year-old retired teacher. "The first thing we want is order, for the people to calm down. I'm afraid of an accident. God knows what could happen."

Italy tried to step into the mess by brokering a deal Monday with a group purporting to represent the Vlore rebels. In an extraordinary event, Italian Ambassador Paolo Foresti, a close ally of Berisha, met on an Italian warship in the Adriatic with the "Committee for the Protection of Vlore."

The two parties agreed that Italy would attempt to secure humanitarian aid for Vlore, while the committee agreed to the disarming of the city's insurgents. Unanswered was the question of whether the committee really has any influence in Vlore.

As the meeting took place, Albert Shyti, the new rebel leader of Vlore who has become a minor celebrity for television crews, was hanging out at a Vlore hotel known for its drug trafficking. He and half a dozen bodyguards sat in the sunshine overlooking the sea, drank Cinzano and ogled foreign women. Shyti laughed as his associates fired their Kalashnikovs from a hotel balcony.

A man in his early 20s who works at the hotel's restaurant ridiculed the meeting with the Italian ambassador.

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