Albanian Uprising: Looted guns aid attempt to take over

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The Independent Online
ALBANIA'S SOCIALIST Government appeared woefully unprepared for the anarchic challenge to its rule on the streets of the capital yesterday. But if officials were surprised at the violent turn of events, they should not have been.

Western diplomats believe the government's obvious weakness always made it vulnerable to a repeat of the kind of armed insurrection that toppled President Sali Berisha - now the opposition leader - in March last year.

That uprising released hundreds of thousands of looted weapons - freely available now to the bandits who have made Albania the most lawless country in Europe, and for those who might want to mount a direct challenge to the government.

The government's supporters, on the other hand, insist this is not a spontaneous popular uprising similar to last year's revolt. That was caused by popular anger over fraudulent pyramid investment schemes. This time, they say, the rioters are acting out a cynical plan by Mr Berisha to take power back in the same way it was taken from him.

Either way, the government, should have expected trouble. It started with the murder last wekend of one of the Democratic Party's most popular figures, Azem Hajdari - a former student leader who led the demonstrations in 1992 that brought down Albania's Communist regime and swept Mr Berisha into office.

Mr Berisha immediately declared it was a political assassination ordered by the authorities. He has been unable to produce any evidence of official involvement in the murder, and indeed it is hard to see how a government so obviously weak would benefit from stirring up trouble by killing an opponent.

There are, however, several other conspiracy theories to consider. The one favoured by the Socialists is that Mr Berisha himself was behind the killing, needing a pretext to ignite the widespread unrest, which would be his only path back to power. Others believe the dead man was a casualty in the war for control of the lucrative trade in weapons being smuggled to Albanian rebels in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Whatever the truth, Mr Berisha has used the death to his advantage, repeating his allegations against the government with every day the unrest continues and demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, Fatos Nano.

The crisis has been deepened by the war in neighbouring Kosovo, where Albanian fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army have suffered a series of crushing defeats at the hands of the Serbian security forces.

The KLA fighters see Albania as a natural refuge. Mr Berisha's opponents say he has close links to the KLA and might use some of their personnel if open warfare breaks out. Some allege he has already done so on the streets of Tirana.

Mr Berisha has stressed he will take office again only after a vote by the Albanian people in the new elections. Many political commentators now believe the best hope to avoid widespread bloodshed is for the installation of an emergency "technical" government, which would organise fresh polls. This might be the quickest and cleanest path to victory for Mr Berisha. But as the Socialist government is insisting that it will not to give in to violence, there are growing fears that the events in Tirana mark not so much a return to the anarchy of last year as the start of a full- scale civil war.