Berisha caves in to rebel pressure

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The Independent Online
Young men drunk with the excitement of brandishing Kalashnikovs looted from army depots drove around the streets at break-neck speed and fired round after round into the air, to mark their victory.

"Berisha - come and get me if you want to," shouted one hooded teenager. He did not look as though he was about to hand in his weapon in a hurry. The bursts of automatic gunfire were a response to the biggest climbdown yet by the Albanian President, Sali Berisha, who caved in yesterday to demands for an all-party transitional government and new parliamentary elections.

Speaking live on state television, the President promised an amnesty for civilians and military rebels if they hand in their weapons within a week.

The agreement was welcomed by all the political parties. One senior Socialist official, Pandeli Majko, said: "For the first time since 1990, Albanian politicians are showing maximum flexibility." Mr Majko said he was ready to go to the rebel-held stronghold of Vlora to negotiate with the rebels as part of the proposed national unity government.

The crisis began two months ago, with riots sparked by the collapse of fraudulent investment schemes and has escalated to the verge of civil war. Mr Berisha's attempt to assert dictatorial powers has been rebuffed by both the rebels and the international community. The fall of Gjirokaster was the result of an ill-thought-out incursion by government sponsored commandos. Last Sat- urday, the townspeople chased 60-odd commandos away across the mountains. A black Mercedes carrying the government-appointed mayor sped out of town for the Greek border 20 miles away. A 14-year-old boy was killed in the pandemonium that followed.

Last night, there was no sign of government authority anywhere in the region. Police at the Greek border post of Kakavia gave up their guns and vanished.

The rebels now control a continuous stretch of territory from the port of Vlora down to Saranda, across to Gjirokaster and up to Tepelena. In Saranda, a retired army colonel, Xhevat Kociu, has been appointed head of the revolutionary council. He and other rebel leaders have pleaded for restraint, arguing that citizens should wait for a political solution.

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