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U.S., Western embassies begin evacuation from Albania

Helicopters

12 killed as unrest spreads through country

In this story:

March 13, 1997
Web posted at: 4:03 p.m. EST (2103 GMT)

TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- Western embassies, including the United States, were evacuating staff and dependents from Albania Thursday as rebellion and lawlessness spread throughout the country.

Four Chinook helicopters landed in Tirana on Thursday to begin an evacuation of all non-essential U.S. government personnel, their dependents "and as many civilians as we can take out," said U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.

The helicopters sent out troops to help in the evacuation. They evacuated 50 American civilians, mostly children.

About 170 U.S. government employees and dependents will be brought out by the military in the next day or so, Burns said. There are about 2,000 U.S. civilians in Albania, and all who want to leave will be evacuated as well.

Burns

U.S. ambassador to remain

Burns said the U.S. embassy remain open with a core staff, including the U.S. ambassador and about 17 other officials.

The North Atlantic Council was meeting in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss coordinating the evacuation among several Western governments, including the United States, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom, Burns said.

The Italian government Thursday began evacuating people from Albania and joined Albania in calling for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The two nations urged the 15-member body to issue a statement before possible massacres broke out in the Balkan state. Italy fears a flood of refugees from across the Adriatic Sea.

Burns said the U.S. military evacuation was ordered when it became apparent that the Americans could not be evacuated by sea or by commercial flights. Officials in Albania said Tirana's airport was closed for a 48-hour period for security reasons. icon (341K/16 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

'Situation will ... deteriorate'

"There's been a breakdown of public order now in Tirana," Burns said. "We believe the situation will continue to deteriorate.

Earlier Thursday, at least 12 people were killed and 50 injured as looters raided military bases for weapons, fired rifles into the air and hunted for food.

Overnight, the capital city of Tirana turned into a shooting gallery as weapons were carried off from two military sites and gunfire was heard from many parts of the city.

Panic-buying began in the city and a warehouse belonging to Vefa, Albania's largest investment fund, was ransacked.

About 600 prisoners, including former President Ramiz Alia and ex-Prime Minister Fatos Nano, fled Albania's central prison in Tirana when guards deserted their posts, said a guard who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Alia, Albania's last Communist ruler, went on trial on February 18 on charges of sending innocent people to labor camps and other crimes against humanity. Nano was serving the last part of a 12-year sentence for falsifying documents and abuse of humanitarian funds.

In Shkodar, northern Albania's biggest town, a night of mayhem left four people dead, including two military officers, and at least a score wounded, hospital officials said.

In Lezha, a town 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of Tirana, armed youths on motorcycles and in cars patrolled the streets, repeatedly firing their looted Kalashnikov assault rifles skyward.

Protesters force prisoners' release

In nearby Lac, a crowd of several hundred people, many armed, gathered outside the police station, where relatives were demanding the release of about 40 prisoners held there.

Eventually the police decided it would be safer for them to release the prisoners rather than risk a confrontation.

Overnight looting and violence were also reported in Korca in the east; Durras on the western Adriatic coast; and in Elbasan, in central Albania.

The new eruption of violence left virtually no community of any size untouched by the revolt against President Sali Berisha.

The insurgency began after high-risk investment schemes collapsed, swallowing the savings of thousands of Albanians.

Government asks for help

In an effort to stem the armed revolt, Berisha formed a coalition government. But the appointment of Bashkim Fino of the opposition Socialist Party as the new prime minister did nothing to calm the country.

Fino has asked the outside world for help and promised his new government would open a dialogue with the armed areas.

Berisha and all political parties on Thursday called for NATO's European members to provide military assistance to restore order.

Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.

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