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Hundreds fleeing Albania rescued at sea

New pressure for president to step down

March 17, 1997
Web posted at: 2:35 p.m. EST (1935 GMT)

Latest developments:

(CNN) -- Hundreds of Albanians fleeing anarchy in their homeland were rescued at sea by the Italian coast guard on Monday after the refugees' decrepit ship took on water and threatened to sink in the Adriatic Sea.

U.S. military forces carried out a separate rescue at sea on Sunday.

The leader of the main opposition party urged Albanians to remain in their country, turn in weapons and support a caretaker government.

A European Union delegation arrived in the capital city of Tirana on Monday for talks with Albanian President Sali Berisha on restoring order in the southern European country.

Tirana itself was returning to normal. Shops were open, transport was running and public employees obeyed an order from the new all-party government to return to work.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said its evacuation efforts were "very close" to being wrapped up after bringing out hundreds of Americans and other nationals.

Refugees rescued by Italian, U.S. vessels

Fleeing armed unrest in their homeland, thousands of Albanians in recent days have boarded rickety boats -- including much of the ragtag Albanian naval fleet -- and headed toward Italy.

Monday's rescue on the Adriatic Sea off the Italian port of Brindisi was the second such operation in recent days.

The rescued passengers, including women and children, told officials they sailed from the southern Albanian port of Vlora some 40 miles away and had been at sea for at least 20 hours.

"They're all safe, now there is no danger at all," said Admiral Renato Ferraro, head of the Italian coast guard.

Italian officials said the ship, a minesweeper crammed with about 900 refugees, ran out of fuel about a mile from the coast, creating panic.

The Italian coast guard mounted a similar rescue on Saturday night when a rusty Albanian patrol boat with 858 people on board ran aground in stormy seas just off the Italian coast.

Refugees have been lodged in makeshift reception centers but hundreds have been moved to other regions to ease the pressure on crowded facilities at Brindisi.

On Sunday evening, U.S. Marine and Navy personnel rescued 55 Albanians whose boat capsized in the Adriatic, about nine miles from Albanian coast. A rescue helicopter floodlit the scene from above.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said Europe would help Albania to rebuild, and urged would-be migrants to stay home.

Political stalemate: Berisha won't step down

Pardoned by a presidential amnesty, the leader of Albania's opposition Socialist party said he would travel to the country's rebellious south as soon as possible to try to persuade insurgents to turn in their guns.

"The Socialist Party has a mission of peace," Fatos Nano declared.

Nano, 45, had been in jail since 1993, convicted of misappropriating funds in a trial that was criticized by international jurists.

A former premier, he was among 51 people granted amnesty late Sunday by Berisha. Last Thursday, a mob freed Nano and hundreds of other inmates from a prison in Tirana.

Nano said the caretaker government which took office last week could "be more effective" if Berisha stepped aside until elections in June.

However, after agreeing to new elections and sharing power with the opposition, Berisha gave no sign he was stepping down.

He told France's Europe-1 radio the situation was still "critical," but insisted that "the danger of civil war is remote."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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