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Albania's army pushes south to crush uprising

March 5, 1997
Web posted at: 1:32 p.m. EST (1832 GMT)

Latest developments:

SARANDA, Albania (CNN) -- Albanian jets attacked a town outside the port city of Saranda Wednesday, witnesses said, as soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the south in a government effort to quash an armed rebellion.

Greece had begun sealing its border with Albania, fearful the unrest next door will send refugees fleeing its way.

Eyewitnesses reported clashes between insurgents and army units between Saranda and Delvine, 20 km (12 miles) to the east, throughout the morning.


An Albanian fighter plane was seen flying over the village of Livena, about 6 miles (10 km) east of Saranda. Smoke rose from the area just after it passed, they said.

Another witness said an Albanian warplane dropped a bomb next to two houses in the village.

About 400 families, most belonging to Albania's ethnic Greek minority, live in Livena. It was not clear if anyone was hurt.

A witness in Saranda said government helicopters were firing on the city, while other witnesses said rebels had seized an army tank and were driving it through the streets.

They said hundreds of heavily-armed insurgents had set up a defense line in the hills at the entrance to the town, 120 miles (190 kilometers) south of Tirana, Albania's capital.

Capital calm, journalists still blocked

Tirana itself was calm on Wednesday, the third day of emergency government measures including a curfew and press censorship. Authorities continue to ban journalists from traveling to the southern part of the country.

A Defense Ministry statement said that army chief of staff General Sheme Kosova had been replaced by Major General Adem Copani, President Sali Berisha's personal military adviser.

A statement from the prime minister's office published in the newspaper Rilindja Demokratike said Kosova had been fired for failing to ensure adequate security at military posts stormed and looted of their weapons by "terrorists."

Greece sends troops to border

Greece was sending troops to its border with Albania. The Athens government has ruled out military intervention but said it was concerned about some 300,000 ethnic Greeks living in southern Albania.

The primarily Orthodox Christian Greeks are the largest ethnic minority in Albania and have long complained of discrimination by Albania's mostly Muslim and Catholic population.

Albania denies pilots told to shoot at civilians

Albania denied that two of its air force pilots who defected to southern Italy had been given orders to shoot at civilians as part of operations to crack down on the uprising.

A Defense Ministry statement said the pilots, who landed their MiG-15 plane at an Italian base and asked for asylum on Tuesday, had been on a reconnaissance flight.

One of the two pilots told Italian reporters they switched course rather than carry out orders to open fire.

More than 20 people have been reported killed since Friday in the southern port of Vlora and other southern towns abandoned by the authorities after rioters raided army and police weapons stores.

The protests in the south were triggered by the collapse of high-risk investment funds in which nearly every Albanian lost money.

Anger has been directed at the government for not warning people away from the pyramid schemes.

Also Wednesday:

  • Albania called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to postpone its mission to Tirana. Earlier, former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky had announced plans to lead an OSCE delegation to hold talks Thursday in Tirana with all political groups.
  • Pope John Paul II urged pilgrims in Saint Peter's Square to pray for Albania, where Catholics make up 10 percent of the Muslim-majority population.

Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.


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