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Albanian cities 'out of control,' foreign minister says

SARANDE, Albania (CNN) -- Government forces maintained control in Albania's capital Tirana Wednesday evening, but the country's foreign minister said that in three other restless southern cities, the situation was "out of control."

Conditions deteriorated throughout the day Wednesday in Sarande, Vlora and Delvina. In the morning, witnesses reported that government forces had bombed an area near Sarande, Albania's southernmost city.

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By evening, insurgents there had looted a checkpoint, carrying off guns and parading them through the city. Armed protesters staged a boisterous rally in the main square Wednesday evening, defying a nighttime curfew, chanting anti-government slogans and holding guns aloft.

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East of Vlora, soldiers and insurgents shot at each other across the Vjosa river. And after fighting in Delvina, insurgents claimed victory when soldiers retreated.

The anti-government protests in the south were triggered by the collapse of wildly popular pyramid-type investment schemes in which many Albanian families lost savings. Those who lost money blame the government of President Sali Berisha for failing to warn them about the risks.

Meanwhile, frightened by the violence, a steady stream of people left the south for the north.

Government seeks to isolate cities

The government was trying to isolate Sarande, Tirana and Delvina and defuse the unrest before it spreads to the rest of southern Albania.

Albanian Foreign Minister Tritan Shehu said the goal was to calm things down without resorting to armed conflict. Four civilians in Sarande have died in the insurgency.

Fieri, south of Tirana, has become the front line for Albanian government forces. An army checkpoint was set up there and armed with at least five T-55 tanks and half a dozen armored personnel carriers. Other government checkpoints were also set up.

And the government continued to impose a series of emergency measures, including a curfew and media censorship. Authorities are banning journalists from traveling to the southern part of the country.

The evening curfew was working so well in Tirana Wednesday that it was extended to give residents an extra two hours outside. But the calm there was uneasy.

U.S. concerned, but holding off on action

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen expressed concern Wednesday about the crisis in Albania, and said the United States was watching the situation closely. But he said he saw no need for any evacuation of American citizens.

The U.S. State Department estimates there are some 1,600 U.S. citizens in Albania.

State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns said there was a limit to what the United States could do to help quell the crisis in Albania, beyond bonding with neighboring countries such as Italy and Greece to pressure Tirana to resolve the situation peacefully and democratically.

Burns said an effort was being made to have the United States and the Europeans, possibly in the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), adopt a unified position on Albania. He did not know if OSCE would take action.

As the division between north and south deepens, the fighting threatens to turn into a struggle between the ruling Democratic Party and a coalition centered around former communists.

 
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