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Albanian rebels agree to back caretaker government

But they still want Berisha sacked

March 21, 1997
Web posted at: 7:50 p.m. EST (0050 GMT)

Latest developments:

TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- Rebel leaders controlling southern Albania have decided not to set up a government to usurp power from President Sali Berisha, even though Berisha missed a deadline they set for him to step aside.

Representatives from about a dozen rebel-held regions met in Tepelena Friday and repeated their demand that Berisha be replaced by a special multiparty presidential committee, before elections to be held by June.

But they backed away from a threat to withdraw support for the caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Bashkim Fino and set up a rival presidential council to rule in the south unless Berisha resigned by Thursday.

In a statement released after their meeting, the rebels said they were ready to cooperate with Fino.

Fino has rejected demands to force Berisha to leave before the elections. The president has said he'll step aside if his party loses.

Rebels want role in political talks


Many Albanians blame Berisha for not stopping shady pyramid investment schemes that collapsed in January, wiping out many families' life savings and instigating the current violence.

Many towns in the region appear to be run by local gangs, all armed to the teeth with weapons looted from army barracks.

While backing away from a threat of a separate government, rebel leaders are demanding a voice in national political discussions.

They also want Fino's government to "neutralize" institutions they believe are propping up Berisha, including the state-run media, and want Fino to assume control of the secret and regular police forces.

Italy is sending emergency aid


The Italian government said Friday it is preparing to send emergency health supplies, including medicine, to Albania, at Fino's request. The supplies, enough to aid 300,000 people for a month, will be flown to Tirana this weekend, according to a statement from the foreign ministry in Rome.

Italy also repatriated more Albanian "undesirables" on Friday as bad weather in the Adriatic caused a lull in the arrival of refugees. A group of 41 Albanians was flown back to Tirana from the southern Italian port of Brindisi, and another 80 were to be repatriated later in the day.

The repatriated Albanians either escaped from prison during the recent upheavals or had broken Italian laws since they arrived. Friday's repatriations would bring the total to more than 300 since the latest exodus began.

Nearly 11,000 refugees have arrived in Italy since March 13 in a flotilla of more than 130 rusty boats.

Friday flights into Tirana delayed

In Albania's capital of Tirana, the airport remained open after the first flight in a week left for Sofia, Bulgaria, on Thursday. But no planes were flying on Friday.

Albanian Airlines, which had promised to resume scheduled services on Friday with flights to Rome and Bologna in Italy, said the plane that flew to Sofia was undergoing repairs in the Bulgarian capital.

Western airlines have said they will not resume services until Monday at the earliest.

NATO evacuation option dropped

U.S. officials, meanwhile, said the option of using a large-scale NATO force to assist in evacuating Americans from the country was dropped from consideration after it became clear Americans could be rescued with U.S. helicopters.

A NATO force was one of several options considered by President Clinton's senior advisers last week as Albania dissolved into chaos with hundreds of Americans at risk.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright raised the NATO option at the end of a discussion with other administration officials, a senior administration official said Friday. The idea was never put forward as a proposal for action or in the form of a position paper, one official said.

Correspondent Steve Hurst contributed to this report.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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