U.S. suspends Albania air evacuations after missile fire
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
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.
(923K/24 sec. QuickTime movie)
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.
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. (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
Some were en route to Italy on board two Italian military
vessels, the San Giorgio and the San Giusto, the ministry
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
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
- 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.
Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.
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