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Albanian rebels meet after president ignores ultimatum

March 21, 1997
Web posted at: 6:40 p.m. EST (2340 GMT)

Latest developments:

TIRANA, Albania (CNN) -- Rebel leaders in southern Albania were gathering on Friday to decide their next course of action after President Sali Berisha ignored their ultimatum to resign.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, said the option of using a large- scale NATO force to assist in evacuations 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.

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.

Rebels consider their next move

Albania map

Representatives of 13 towns in the south held by rebels who rose up against the government last month were due to meet in the town of Tepelena, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Tirana, to determine their next move after a Thursday deadline they set for Berisha to quit passed.

They had threatened to withdraw support for the new premier, Bashkim Fino, who has rejected their demand that Berisha resign before elections.

Many Albanians blame Berisha for not stopping shady pyramid savings schemes that operated for more than three years until they collapsed earlier this year, swallowing the life savings of thousands of families, especially in the more prosperous south.

The rebels have threatened to set up a rival presidential council to challenge the president's authority in the south, where many towns appear to be run by local gangs, all armed to the teeth with weapons looted from army barracks at the start of the uprising.

Albanian political party leaders, now part of the all-party government taking the country up to elections by June, have come out against using force to remove Berisha, saying the democratic process will decide.

More refugees sent back

Italy 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 on Friday.

The repatriated Albanians either escaped from prison during the recent upheavals or broke 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.

The European Union said it could provide humanitarian aid for Albania within three days but only if the safety of relief workers was secured.

Correspondent Steve Hurst and Reuters contributed to this report.


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