Gunmen also fired shots from a police van at German troops arriving at a military airport by helicopter to bring out stranded Western citizens. The troops shot back in what was believed to be the first time German soldiers have used weapons in anger abroad since 1945.
Amid the spreading chaos, and with almost nobody noticing, Sali Berisha in effect ceased to be president of Albania yesterday. With the whole country seemingly clamouring for his departure and all state authority supplanted by gangs of armed men, the international community chose to leave the president languishing alone inside his presidential palace and try instead to broker a solution to the crisis with Bashkim Fino, his newly appointed prime minister.
Mr Fino and key ministers spent the day in intensive talks on board an Italian warship in the Adriatic with Franz Vranitzky, the former Austrian chancellor and special envoy for the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, and begged the international community to intervene to restore order. Mr Fino announced that the head of the Shik secret police, Bashkim Gazidede, had resigned and the force would be controlled by the government rather than the president. The resignation met one of the main rebel demands.
Mr Vranitzky and other key Western officials said they might consider some king of policing operation to round up the rebels' weapons, but only under strict conditions. Mr Vranitzky said he saw no alternative to outside military intervention. "I will report that there is no alternative as far as I can see," Mr Vranitzky said. "The decision has to be taken very quickly."
An immediate military operation has been excluded by Nato, the US and the Western European Union, and any subsequent action is likely to be promoted by individual countries.
"First we must have a government that exercises real authority. And secondly any intervention must have the agreement of all parties in Albania, including the rebel commanders in Vlora and elsewhere. But we're a long way from fulfilling either condition," Italy's deputy foreign minister, Piero Fassino, told The Independent.
Diplomats said they saw Mr Fino, a member of the Socialist Party which is bitterly opposed to Mr Berisha, as Albania's last hope. The purpose of Mr Vranitzky's mission, they said, was to give him every possible political support and then sponsor negotiations with the rebel commanders who have ousted the state in cities across the country.
"If Fino doesn't work out, it is not clear if there will be any political authority left at all and then we will have to rethink our strategy from scratch," one European diplomatic source said. "Berisha has been completely sidelined. As far we are concerned, Fino is the last resort."
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