Albanian mobs seize security forces' guns

Southern Albania was in anarchy last night as demonstrators burned buildings, raided barracks and weapons deposits and vowed to attack Tirana if President Sali Berisha did not stand down and make way for new parliamentary elections.

Twenty-four hours after he announced the resignation of his government to try to calm the storm, fury only increased and the country seemed headed for a political vacuum combined with a breakdown of law and order.

The parliament in Tirana yesterday unanimously passed a law establishing a state of emergency, allowing security forces to open fire to disperse crowds, restricting political activity and banning public gatherings of more than four people.

In Vlora, epicentre of the revolution to overthrow one of Europe's most corrupt and authoritarian regimes, an eight-year-old girl died yesterday after being hit by a stray bullet and demonstrators raided five barracks for arms and ammunition before ransacking Orikum naval base, which stores submarine missiles.

In Sarander, demonstrators burned a police station, stole all the weapons and went on a rampage of looting and random firing. The prison was broken open and 100 convicts escaped. "Every family in Sarander has a Kalashnikov," an army lieutenant told Reuters.

Across the south, the state was absent as security forces fled or were evicted. Demonstrators controlled the main towns and roads to Tirana. With little leadership behind the protests, the potential for protracted anarchy and violence seems enormous.

Albania has been racked by turmoil for the past two months as pyramid investment schemes linked to the government collapsed, ruining hundreds of thousands of families and exposing the illegitimacy of a ruling order that has tightened its grip on power through purges of state institutions, manipulation of May's general election and flagrant abuse of political and general human rights.

Vlora was where the latest violence was triggered last Friday as Shik, the plainclothes security police, fought a gun battle with demonstrators after failing to halt a hunger strike organised by students at the university. At least nine people were killed, three apparently in cold blood by Shik officers, and the rest caught in the crossfire or trapped in Shik headquarters as it was torched and ransacked.

Mr Berisha announced the resignation of his government as a result of these events, only to find himself in the firing line yesterday as the new target of the demonstrators' wrath.

Protesters in Vlora demanded that a parliamentary vote to re-elect him due today be postponed, that parliament be dissolved and that a government of non-political "experts" be formed to take the country to new elections. Failure to meet all these points, protest leaders said, would result in an armed march on Tirana. It was unclear if Mr Berisha was in a position to take coherent decisions.

Italy has sought a European Union meeting on Albania. Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said yesterday that he had asked the Dutch, who hold the EU presidency, to arrange a meeting of foreign ministers "tomorrow or at the latest the day after". The interior ministry put coastguards and police in southeastern ports on a state of alert for a possible rise in illegal immigrants from Albania.