Albanian rebels fire on premier

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The Independent Online
THE ALBANIAN capital, Tirana, descended into chaos yesterday as tanks lumbered through the streets and the government declared that it was facing an attempted coup by opposition supporters loyal to the former president, Sali Berisha.

Armoured vehicles seized by opposition supporters fired repeatedly into the building that houses the office of Fatos Nano, the country's Socialist Party Prime Minister. Mr Nano's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister is safe but not in his office for reasons that are clear."

Gunmen declaring their loyalty to Mr Berisha's Democratic Party were seen breaking into parliament, while elsewhere in the city, opposition supporters seized control of the state television building. Mr Berisha used the opportunity to broadcast a repeat of his demands for Mr Nano and his government to resign.

Groups of armed men gathered on the streets while cars with automatic rifles jutting from the windows drove up and down.

It was the second day of violence in the capital. Armed rioting by Democratic Party supporters began at the weekend after one of their leaders, Azem Hajdari, was shot dead by men dressed in police uniforms.

On Sunday, Mr Berisha, claimed that the government had organised Mr Hajdari's murder and demanded that Mr Nano resign within 24 hours.

At least 10,000 opposition supporters gathered for Mr Hajdari's funeral yesterday. Mr Berisha called for calm, but repeated his accusations. Trouble began after the funeral procession apparently attempted to take the coffin into government headquarters.

Eyewitnesses report that there was then an intense exchange of fire. The Socialist government put tanks and armoured personnel carriers on the streets, but opposition supporters commandeered several of the vehicles and it was not clear last night which side was really in control of the capital.

As the crisis deepened, the President, Rexhep Mejdani, held emergency meetings with parliamentary deputies, seemingly with a view to forming a new coalition government. If that happens, it will be a repeat of last year when an armed insurrection saw the Democratic Party ejected from power. There were fears yesterday of full-scale civil war.

The Socialists have denied any involvement in Mr Hajdari's death. To most independent observers it seems unlikely that the Socialists would risk provoking violence by ordering the assassination of an opponent.

The government's supporters mutter that Mr Berisha himself was to blame, or at the very least will take advantage of the killing. "He is determined to resume office at any price," said one long-standing Tirana political insider and critic of Mr Berisha, "even if that means civil war."