Albanian rioters seize port of Vlora

A furious crowd of anti-government demonstrators in effect seized control of the southern Albanian port of Vlora yesterday, stripping riot police of their guns, their riot gear and even their clothes as they rampaged through the streets demanding the resignation of the government and the return of money invested in failed "pyramid" schemes.

After five days of increasingly tense demonstrations in Vlora, the city descended into anarchy as gunshots rang out periodically, wrecked cars and oil drums were rolled out in the street and set on fire and piles of rubble and police uniforms were amassed and turned into giant bonfires.The Prime Minister Aleksander Meksi blamed the unrest on "terrorist groups" and asked parliament to introduce a state of emergency in the port. Deputies debated the proposal through yesterday evening.

The violence left at least three people reported dead and about 100 injured, almost all hit by stones. One of the dead was shot in the back and died on the operating table at the city hospital. The two others were said to have died of heart attacks, but at least one of them was seen admitted to hospital with blood running down his face and body following a severe beating.

The uniformed police, who numbered no more than 100, were no match for the fury of the crowd. Many of them ran into side alleys, where the luckier ones were offered shelter in private houses and the rest had their clothes torn off them piece by piece. Others took refuge on the city rooftops and attempted to intimidate the crowds by dropping stones into the street.

The demonstrations in Vlora were the direct result of the collapse of Gjallica, the latest of Albania's pyramid investment schemes, which was based locally. In most of the rest of the country, the population has been cowed into silence by a wave of arrests and beatings, but in Vlora the government seems to have lost any semblance of authority.

The port is a booming Mafia town, the main entry and exit point for contraband including cigarettes, guns, drugs and immigrants en route to Western Europe, so it is used to considering itself above the law.

People across the country believe the government took an active part in the pyramid schemes and was responsible for duping people into believing that they could continue paying extravagantly high rates of interest to investors. As many as 1 million Albanian households - the entire country, in effect - are believed to have committed money to the schemes.

President Sali Berisha and his government have been entirely unsuccessful in deflecting blame for the crisis, and their promises to pay back some of the money to the people have done little to quell public dissatisfaction.

It is not clear whether the rest of the country will be inspired to follow Vlora's example, or whether the real crunch will come when the biggest of the pyramid schemes, officially still in business, are declared bankrupt in their turn.

The government has offered to open talks with the opposition, but the offer has been overshadowed by a climate of fear in the Albanian capital, Tirana. Dissidents and opposition politicians have been systematically intimidated and attacked in the past few weeks. Last Sunday, the leader of the small Democratic Alliance party, Neritan Ceka, was hit across the face with a truncheon in a Tirana cafe and some of his friends dragged outside and beaten.