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Albanian government tries to isolate armed protesters

protester

President meets with insurgency leaders

March 6, 1997
Web posted at: 9:54 a.m. EST (1454 GMT)

Latest developments:

TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- Albania's military fought with armed protesters in the south Thursday while President Sali Berisha promised that force would not be used to retake towns where the government has lost control.

Looters

In Rome on Thursday, Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini told reporters Berisha had given his assurance that the army would try to isolate the towns and then try to reach a settlement for insurgents to lay down their arms.

Meanwhile, Berisha met in Albania's capital Tirana with political opposition leaders. Attending the Thursday talks were Neritan Ceka, head of the Democratic Alliance, and Skender Gjinushi, leader of the Social Democratic Party -- two of Berisha's strongest critics.

Key bridge bombed

Army tanks and armored personnel carriers roamed roads in the region and protesters prepared for a violent confrontation.

They were building up defenses around Saranda, one witness said, using trucks to block access roads to prepare against any possible assault by the army.

The witness also reported that a key bridge to Saranda had been bombed, limiting access to the coastal town near Albania's southern tip.

It was unclear who had blown up the bridge during heavy fighting in the region on Wednesday. Soldiers and heavily armed civilians fired on each other across a river and government warplanes bombed a mountain village.

One wounded insurgent told reporters the army had operated under a shoot-on-sight order.

Saranda residents, contacted from Athens, Greece, said protesters staged an evening rally in a main square, defying a curfew and holding and babies aloft while chanting anti-government slogans.

Official acknowledges anarchy in south

Government authorities in Tirana portrayed life as normal throughout the impoverished southern European country. State television showed shops and services operating normally.

However, Albania's foreign minister, Tritan Shehu, acknowledged Wednesday that the southern cities of Vlora, Saranda and Delvina were "out of control."

He said the government was intent on containing the growing rebellion without force, but the deployment of jets, tanks and armored personnel carriers appeared to show Berisha's determination to end the insurrection quickly.

refugees

The anti-government violence was sparked by the collapse of risky investment funds that took the life savings of hundreds of thousands of Albanians.

Anger over the failed pyramid schemes has spread across the country, and over the weekend rioters in the southern Albania had burned, looted and stolen thousands of arms from government arsenals.

The rebellion has exposed a deep north-south divide between Berisha's supporters in the north and those who back the opposition Socialists in the south. Overall, southern Albanians are wealthier -- and therefore lost much more than northerners in the schemes.

Reuters reported at least 20 people have been killed in the past week, but the government has barred reporters from traveling to the region and there was no way to verify the number of deaths.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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