Army leaves cities in south

The Albanian army has withdrawn from at least four southern cities in the past 36 hours, mostly without a shot being fired, allowing rebellious civilians to extend their control over the three main roads running south of Tirana.

President Sali Berisha was locked in negotiations yesterday with the Socialist Party and other opponents in Tirana over who would hold which posts in the new caretaker government.

The President was not planning to resign, as demanded by the mutinous south, because he had not been asked to by any of the political parties, a Berisha adviser said. But his decision to call new elections before June is not likely to end the uprising in the south, where heavily armed civilians are also demanding back the money they lost in corrupt investment schemes.

The "rebels" seem now to control four more southern towns - Berat, Permet, Corovod and Kukova - while the army appears to have withdrawn north of Fier. Lushnje, Albania's largest air base, is still said to be in government hands, although one report put the pilots sitting in their cockpits.

At least five people were said to have been killed in skirmishing around Permet, with a sixth shot dead, apparently by a sniper, during the celebrations that followed the army's retreat.

It is not clear why the troops have pulled so far back, but their action must weaken Mr Berisha's hand. One diplomat described the President's recent concessions as substantial, but warned: "We're a long way from solutions here, with the number of guns in people's hands."

The people of Vlora are certainly not planning to surrender their weapons any time soon. "The Council for the Salvation of Vlora decided to co- operate with the police. We are checking all those who are acting as police, making sure they have not been involved in any crimes," Sokol Qendro, a member of the newly formed council, said.