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Albania deteriorates into chaos

Looting widespread, government at a loss to restore calm

March 13, 1997
Web posted at: 8:15 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Siobhan Darrow

widespread looting

TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- Any semblance of order was gone Thursday in this capital city as unrest spread from southern Albania to the east, west, and north.

Overnight, Albania became a nation of Rambos.


movie icon Unrest in Albania
(33 sec. /1.3 M Small QuickTime movie)
(33 sec. /3.3 M Large QuickTime movie)

For years, Albania was Europe's poorest nation. The fall of Communism in Europe has failed to improve the country's situation much.

But in some areas, especially the south, Albanians were able to trade with their neighbors and make a little money. The collapse of several fraudulent pyramid schemes in January began the unrest; many families blamed the government when they lost their life savings, and were set back to where they started.

Now, the people who for so long were Europe's poorest, are hauling off everything in sight -- pots and pans, sacks of flour, blankets -- and nobody seems able or willing to stop them. Armories nationwide have been raided, and everyone who can grabs a gun, or several.

There is no age limit to the frenzied stealing spree, and no class barrier. An elegantly dressed older man lugs a pallet of cardboard boxes across a crowded city street, while youths in jean jackets rifle through boxes of guns and ammunition. Even the police are in on the plunder, racing through the streets with their haul.

Law and order pushed aside

What is left of law and order in Tirana seems powerless in the face of people plundering weapons. The streets resound with gunfire as everyone tries out their new toys.

Both Albania's government and the international community seem at a loss to intervene: Albania's political parties urged NATO's European members to use their military to end the turmoil.

In response, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the Albanian crisis was essentially an internal matter and it was not clear what international troops would or could do there. Spain and The Netherlands, however, both expressed willingness to help.

Fino

President Sali Berisha and his newly appointed opposition Socialist Prime Minister Bashkim Fino also spoke to their nation Thursday, urging Albanians for calm.

"We've met with European and the U.S. ambassadors and they've assured us of economic support to solve the crisis, but we need to send them a message that we Albanians can have understanding and dialogue among ourselves," Berisha said.

Berisha's government also sent tanks into downtown Tirana Thursday night. Opposition political leaders said Berisha told them the tanks would be used "to protect the main state institutions."

Western embassies, who foresee that the situation is likely to deteriorate, scrambled Thursday to get their staffs out of the country. With the airport closed for security reasons, U.S. and Italian helicopters lifted people out of Tirana. Other countries are using risky land routes for evacuations.

Civilians taking control

Meanwhile, citizens throughout Albania are trying in their own ways to restore calm. One man who identified himself as Mero took a gun from a barracks, which he is using to defend his home and his three sons. In the southern town of Elbason, an ad hoc group of citizens met to try to bring order.

"The politicians can't keep up with the situation, events are unfolding too quickly in comparison to the political response," one of them said. "It is the politicians who brought the country to the edge."

In Tirana, shopkeepers were boarding up store fronts. State TV cut into children's programming for a special newscast, leading with the ominous announcement that 200 "citizens" had volunteered to help police restore order in Tirana. It said they warned Tirana residents to obey the law, or they would open fire.

It's hard to describe the situation in the capital Tirana. The activity couldn't be called a textbook civil war. Rather, it is complete anarchy, as if Albanians are trying to take as much as they can after decades of having nothing.

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