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Albania enters the twilight zone

Albania was in the grip of a rule of terror last night as the government imposed martial law, enforced a rigorous curfew, cracked down on foreign and domestic media and ordered its security forces to shoot on sight at the first sign of trouble.

With armed gangs roving around cities in the south and the population in growing ferment against a crumbling, corrupt government, President Sali Berisha and his confidants resorted to repression in a desperate attempt to restore order.

The streets of the capital, Tirana, were choking with uniformed and plainclothes police. Residents ventured out only to buy supplies of bread and other staples before scurrying back home. Foreigners terrified by reports of random attacks by plainclothes policemen, including one on a British journalist, abandoned their houses and offices and moved into the city's large international hotels for protection.

The local language services of the BBC and Voice of America, both key sources of independent information for Albanians, were pulled from their FM slots, although the BBC later switched to short wave broadcasts. The rest of the media was subjected to government censorship. The offices of Albania's most popular newspaper, Koha Jone, were left smouldering after a group of men burst in overnight and set fire to the building and lobbed Molotov cocktails in all directions.

The country's northern border with the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro was closed and in the south ferry services to Corfu were suspended indefinitely. Foreigners were ordered to leave the south of the country and Italian military helicopters flew over to the port of Vlora, which has seen some of the worst of the unrest, to pick up about 40 of them and ferry them to Brindisi, on the other side of the Adriatic.

Albania has been sliding into anarchy for two months, as a series of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes have collapsed and hundreds of thousands of ruined Albanians have held the government to blame. Weeks of unrest culminated in gun battles between demonstrators and Shik secret policemen in Vlora over the weekend, followed by wholesale looting of army barracks and weapons deposits.

President Berisha announced the resignation of his government on Saturday and then imposed a state of emergency with the head of the secret police, Bashkim Gazidede, in charge of overall security. He blamed the crisis on communists and foreign intelligence agents in an echo of the rhetoric of Enver Hoxha, Albania's longtime Stalinist dictator who was forever terrified of subversion from abroad.

Yesterday Mr Berisha added to the surreal echoes of the past by having himself re-elected president for another five years in a fake show of democratic endorsement in parliament. Only members of Mr Berisha's Democratic Party, which dominates the legislature following last May's rigged elections, took part in the vote. Party loyalists celebrated Mr Berisha's "victory" by firing rounds of automatic gunfire into the air outside the parliament building.

It is not clear how long the charade can continue. The armed forces are poorly equipped, largely with old Russian and Chinese hardware, and Albania's naval and air bases are under the partial control of Nato.

Last night, rebels in the town of Sarander, near the Greek border, were reported to have seized control of a warship and begun firing. Earlier, they beat up the mayor, Carajev Zera, and burned police vehicles abandoned by the security forces.

The international community, meanwhile, was considering ways of restraining Mr Berisha and bringing him back to the negotiating table with the opposition over the establishment of an all-party transitional government.

As reported in The Independent two weeks ago, Albania is a country propped up by the profits of organised crime, particularly arms and drugs smuggling. Intelligence services fear a protracted crisis could lead to a situation like that in Somalia,with rival gangs fighting over the various rackets. When The Independent branded the Albanian government a "gangster regime", there were widespread protests from businessmen and Albanian officials.

But it is increasingly evident that since 1991, when Communist rule collapsed, the police and army have been thoroughly tainted by the rackets. It will be almost impossible for any government to reassert control over a restive, angry population, now armed to the teeth.