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U.S. suspends Albania air evacuations after missile fire


Evacuation details:

March 14, 1997
Web posted at: 1:15 p.m. EST (1815 GMT)

TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- With anarchy ruling in Albania, western countries and Russia scrambled Friday to evacuate their citizens. The United States, however, temporarily suspended rescue airlifts when gunfire and a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile were directed at U.S. Marine helicopters escorting transport choppers, Pentagon sources told CNN.

"According to the reports that we've received from the pilots, they were fired upon and that fire was returned," Defense Secretary William Cohen said in Washington. He said the U.S. helicopters were not struck by any of the fire.

One Italian helicopter was hit, but there were no injuries, the Italian government said.

In virtually all parts of Albania, the army and police have dispersed and civilians have looted military barracks of weapons, firing them into the air.

Albanian authorities, buoyed by a new all-party government, have appealed unsuccessfully for calm against a campaign by rebels demanding the resignation of President Sali Berisha.

Sporadic gunfire, some of it close and intense, was heard near the compound where U.S. diplomats live and where the evacuations were taking place.

Dozens of Marines were on guard, lying on grass lawns with M-16s pointed out toward the compound's high, spiked fence.

The U.S. Ambassador to Albania, Marisa Lino, appeared Friday on state TV, assuring Albanians that the embassy was going to remain open. Eighteen other embassy staffers would stay with her, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters in Washington.

The U.N. refugee agency said it had urged Italy and Greece to allow Albanians fleeing violence and anarchy to enter and stay as long as necessary, because sending them back home could expose them to danger. movie icon (923K/24 sec. QuickTime movie)

United States

Before the U.S. temporarily suspended its airborne evacuations, Marine transport helicopters had begun ferrying hundreds of American nationals away from the capital Tirana to the safety of U.S. Navy ships on the Adriatic Sea. Many of the Americans leaving were Peace Corps volunteers.

Albania and Italy

Burns said people from 18 different nationalities also had been evacuated by the U.S. military

A U.S. embassy spokesman in Tirana said up to 2,200 people with American and dual nationality could be involved in the operation, which would go on for as long as needed.

The helicopters involved, Sea Knights and Sea Stallions with two-man Cobras providing security, were from the Navy amphibious ships Nassau, Nashville and Pensacola.


Earlier in the day six Italian military helicopters, including giant Chinooks, swooped down on Tirana's main football stadium and evacuated about 100 people, including Italian businessmen, nuns, Croatian and Russian diplomats. movie icon (791K/20 sec. QuickTime movie)


But not everyone who wanted to leave was allowed to. An Albanian man with an Italian residence card was left behind.

An Albanian family desperate to get their sick child to an Italian hospital faced difficulties at first but was finally allowed aboard one of the Italian choppers.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said it had completed an evacuation begun on Thursday, in which some 1,000 people, including a small number of Albanians, have been taken out of the country by air and sea -- headed for the Italian port of Brindisi.

Some were en route to Italy on board two Italian military vessels, the San Giorgio and the San Giusto, the ministry said.

France, Russia, other countries


A total of 69 French nationals, most of them embassy staff and dependents, were evacuated from Tirana on Friday. They headed for the port of Durres, where helicopters were waiting to fly them to Italy.

Russia flew out 16 family members of Russian diplomats stationed in Tirana, Interfax news agency reported.

A group of around 100 people from countries including Germany, Austria and Greece, were gathered at the Austrian embassy in Tirana waiting for transport to take them to Durres.

Other developments

  • Former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky met Friday with newly named Albanian Prime Minister Bashkim Fino on an Italian warship off the Albanian coast. Vranitzky was heading a team of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has taken a lead role in diplomatic efforts to end Albania's unrest.

  • The United Nations Children's Fund has negotiated with Albanian television to feature hourly spots warning children not to use weapons in their possession, a UNICEF spokeswoman said. The distribution of guns from looted armories has been so widespread that many children are armed.

Albania's weeks-long uprising was sparked by the collapse of high-risk investment schemes that drained the savings of thousands of Albanians. It quickly grew into anti-government protests.

Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.

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