Against a background of gunfire from insurgents discharging their weapons into the air, at least two tanks could be seen on the main street where the government buildings are located. Opposition leaders said Mr Berisha had told them he was deploying the tanks "to protect the state institutions".
Two Royal Navy destroyers were steaming towards the coast as the British government prepared to rescue about 120 British nationals trapped in the country. HMS Birmingham and HMS Exeter swung into action after officials postponed an attempt to evacuate the stranded Britons by air.
"It is extremely difficult to get anything in by air," a Foreign Office spokesman said. "There are people running around the airport with weapons. There is a great deal of indiscriminate firing and chaos."
With President Berisha's soldiers having surrendered control of most towns to civilians armed with stolen guns, the Albanian leader faced little choice but to flee his country, probably with Western assistance, or face the wrath of his people.
Diplomatic sources said members of his family were evacuated on a ferry bound for Italy yesterday. Some 400 foreigners, including 330 Italians, were evacuated by helicopter from Durres on to Italian naval vessels in the Adriatic Sea. US forces were preparing to rescue about 2,000 Americans in Albania.
The new interim government called for foreign military intervention, and asked for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.
Across the country, it has become a case of every man for himself and for every man a gun. "It was fine until two days ago, and then they started raiding the armouries," said Gaenor Hall, a British missionary based in the northern town of Fusharrez. "There's a lot of anarchy, a lot of people stealing flour from the army barracks," added her colleague, Tom Hudson.
In Elbasan, an industrial town in a valley near Tirana, a mob attacked two large military bases on the edge of town on Wednesday night, and the soldiers simply withdrew. The garrison's commander was in tears yesterday as people streamed past him carrying rifles, machine-guns, uniforms and gas masks. Boys as young as eight and nine brandished rifles, adding to the terrifying sense of lawlessness.
As looters ransacked military supplies at will, a building smouldered in the distance. "I don't think people here want any political party. We're against Berisha because he took our money," said Ilir Kamami, an Elbasan resident.
At the headquarters of a tank division, half a mile away, dormitory buildings were ablaze as Gypsies hoisted tables, chairs and cupboards on to horse-drawn carts. Hundreds of other locals foraged for guns, and all around, was the crackle of gunfire.
The new caretaker government does not appear to control anything. Tirana airport is out of government hands and gangsters are making the most of this tumultuous period of mob rule.
During the southern uprising of the past 10 days, gunmen have to some extent policed the anti-Berisha mutiny sparked last month by the collapse of corrupt investment schemes. The gunmen have formed blockades, checked documents and hounded out secret policemen.
But in towns such as Elbasan, where guns are now selling at $5 (pounds 3) apiece, public order has all but disintegrated. "This is the spirit of Albania, born of the eagle.
They like this," one man said, pointing at a small boy with a gas mask and a gun.
Further reporting by Adrian Hadland
Andrew Gumbel, page 18