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Albanian government threatens firepower against rioters

Amid crisis, President Berisha wins second term

March 3, 1997
Web posted at: 12:05 p.m. EST (1705 GMT)


TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- Protesters in southern Albania had until 2 p.m. Monday (1300 GMT) to lay down their weapons or security forces would be authorized to shoot without warning, the government said. Protest leaders responded by cautioning people to stay indoors.

The order was part of a state of emergency declared by the Albanian parliament following two months of civil unrest. The riots and demonstrations were sparked by the collapse of pyramid savings schemes that wiped out many people's savings in Europe's poorest nation.

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As secret police and protesters prepared for what could be another bloody confrontation, the parliament elected President Sali Berisha to serve a second five-year term. The election result, a foregone conclusion, came in the wake of protesters' calls for Berisha's resignation.

The vote was 113 in favor to one against with four abstentions, Speaker Pjeter Arbnori announced. Members of Berisha's party hold 122 seats in the 140-seat parliament and Berisha was the only candidate in the previously scheduled vote.

The president, who required a two-thirds majority for election on the first ballot, was in the chamber with his wife and was sworn in after the vote. Several diplomats also observed the session. Deputies chanted "Berisha, Berisha" when the result was announced.

Crackdown on civilians, media

The state of emergency, which went into effect at 1 a.m., included tough new media restrictions, wide arrest powers for police and restrictions on public gatherings and demonstrations.

The emergency laws also include an ultimatum to protesters in towns throughout southern Albania to lay down arms they have seized from abandoned army bases. Protesters in several towns, including Vlora, drove out security forces in a series of violent confrontations over the weekend, burning police buildings and even ransacking Berisha's summer home.

Sporadic violence had marked the demonstrations in Albania that began after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes in January, but the riots in southern towns that left 12 people dead over the weekend brought the crisis to a head.

Protesters vow to defend themselves

After hearing of the government's shoot-on-sight ultimatum, protesters suspended plans to march north to the capital Tirana to demand the resignation of Berisha, whom they blame for the failure of pyramid investment schemes.

Despite the crackdown, protesters continued to raid weapons stockpiles from army bases left unguarded by troops withdrawing to Tirana.

Protest leaders said they wanted to avoid bloodshed but were preparing to defend themselves if attacked.

Genc Pollo, a member of parliament for the ruling Democratic Party and Berisha's spokesman, told Austrian state radio Monday that the government can resolve the crisis.

"The problems can be solved," he said. "Order has to be restored in this country. There was dissatisfaction, but the risk that Albania is now facing is much greater."

Protesters target secret police

Rioters have aimed their anger primarily at the non-uniformed "Shik" secret police, whom locals believe are being paid large sums of money to break up the protests. The government was relying on the secret police to quell the riots since many uniformed police and even army troops, some of whom are thought to have lost money in pyramid schemes themselves, have offered little resistance to protesters in the south.

The violence in Vlora started when rumors spread that secret police teams were getting ready to use force to end a hunger strike by students at the university.

The students decided to end their hunger strike Monday following the president's announcement of a state of emergency.

Tight media restrictions

In Tirana Monday international news organizations were being severely restricted in their efforts to gather news. Uniformed and plain clothes police and security forces harassed and threatened to arrest reporters and television crews attempting to cover the events in the capital Monday morning. Newspapers were required to submit their material to Berisha's Defense Council before publication.

International news agencies said they were hampered in their ability to gather information in Tirana and video they recorded in southern Albania was not being allowed through army checkpoints on the road to Tirana.

The government also announced a nighttime curfew from 8 p.m.-7 a.m. local time every night throughout the country and shut down schools and universities until further notice.


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