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Evacuations from Albania proceed amid a hail of bullets

March 14, 1997
Web posted at: 10:12 p.m. EST (0312 GMT)

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TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- U.S. Marine helicopters swooped into Albania Friday to evacuate hundreds of Americans, and German soldiers opened fire in a dramatic rescue effort as the Balkan nation slipped further into anarchy fueled by failed investment schemes.

The Marines evacuated mostly Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries and families of embassy staff. They were taken from Tirana to a U.S. warship standing by in the Adriatic Sea, safe from the increasingly violent looting and gunfire that are ravaging the Balkan nation.

"It will go on as long as it needs to go on for we are going to stay here until we get out all the American citizens and third-country nationals," Marine Lt. Bill Darrencamp said. "It's just a question of when they get here."

Later in the day the Marines were forced to suspend the evacuation temporarily when their mission was deemed too dangerous, after two U.S. gunships came under anti-aircraft fire from armed Albanians. There were no injuries.

Albanian leaders try to restore order

U.S. officials expressed concern Friday that the anarchy in Albania could send a surge of refugees across international borders, further destabilizing the already shaky region.

In other developments:

  • Authorities made high-profile attempts to calm residents after mass looting, previously confined to the south, spread to Tirana and most of the rest of the country. Police armored vehicles lumbered down Tirana streets, and a curfew introduced two weeks ago was moved up one hour to 7 p.m. By nightfall, shooting had subsided from 24 hours earlier.

  • President Sali Berisha appeared on television with his new prime minister and members of an all-party Cabinet he approved this week, and said the country must help itself in addition to the aid it had requested from NATO's European members -- the Western European Union. "We should make every effort to come out of this crisis," he said. Other politicians, including opposition Socialists, also appeared on TV to appeal for calm.

  • Prime Minister Bashkim Fino announced that the head of the secret police had resigned, and that the force would now be controlled by the government, not the president. That had been a key demand of rebels, who also want Berisha to resign before they'll lay down their arms.

Other nations also stage rescues

As German soldiers airlifted 20 Germans and 100 citizens of other countries out of Tirana, the soldiers exchanged gunfire under "hostile conditions" for the first time since World War II, German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe said.

Ruehe said he sent in five military helicopters from Bosnia that were protected by 25 soldiers to fly the evacuees to Montenegro on Albania's northern border. Shortly afterward, they were taken by plane to Germany.

German military spokesmen Hartmut Bagger told a news conference that gunmen started shooting at evacuees as the third helicopter landed, and the German soldiers fired back.

"We could hear a wild shootout without knowing where the gunshots came from, who was shooting at whom and what sort of weapons they were using," Bagger said, describing what he heard as he spoke with the German ambassador by mobile telephone.

Bagger said a crowd of Albanians tried to storm one of the helicopters, and one helicopter was hit by gunfire. An Albanian was slightly wounded during the rescue, he said.

Britain, France and Greece also evacuated nationals, and Italian naval vessels ferried more than 1,000 people to safety.

Many Albanians, unable to take advantage of the U.S. evacuation, were desperately trying to make their way across the Adriatic Sea to Italy.

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A call for outside help

Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky met with the Albanian prime minister aboard an Italian ship off the coast, because the airport in Tirana remained closed.

"The real important point is to restore public order," Vranitzky said. "The Albanian government says clearly, and I believe them, that they cannot do it themselves and need international help and support, and I think that's what we have to give very urgent thought."

Despite Albanian government efforts to rein in the violence, citizens remain angry over the losses they incurred from a financial pyramid scheme that collapsed. Those who lost money blame Berisha, and want to be reimbursed.

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"It's just the right time that Berisha leave the country to join his family and contribute in this manner in the end to stabilize the situation for which he is mainly responsible," opposition leader Paskal Milo said.

In the meantime, it is becoming increasingly difficult for those in Albania to get food and other necessities. Looters have burned property, and shopkeepers said they are afraid to stay open.

In the impoverished land, money is scarce and guns are the new currency.

Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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