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Berisha sacks army chief as rebellion continues

The state of emergency imposed in Albania two days ago has exacerbated fear in the capital, Tirana, but has done little to quell the anti-government rebellion in the south, where several towns have fallen under the control of angry citizens.

The army chief of staff, whose troops proved powerless to confront rioters armed with weapons looted from barracks, was yesterday sacked by the president, Sali Berisha, and replaced with a trusted presidential adviser.

Tanks were filmed moving towards the towns of Vlora and Gjirokaster but police, who have joined the military effort, stopped foreign journalists from reaching the region, and therefore there are no accounts of what might have happened.

Rebellious civilians in the southern towns of Saranda - who were said by Greek television to be armed with anti-tank weapons - held a rally and announced their intention to set up a parallel city council in opposition to their mayor, who is close to Mr Berisha's ruling party.

A few triumphant men were filmed on one of the patrol boats seized in the capture of Saranda's tiny naval base.

A four-year-old girl was said to have been killed by gunfire in the port of Vlora, bringing the death toll there to 18 since Friday. The government claimed yesterday that four others in the town were "executed by terrorists" on Monday as they tried to comply with an official demand to surrender all weapons.

An Albanian military jet landed at Italy's Galatina military airport near the city of Lecce, in Puglia, just across the Adriatic Sea from Albania. The pilot and co-pilot reportedly asked for political asylum.

Police set numerous roadblocks around Tirana in an attempt to stop the spread of violence that began in January with riots sparked off by the collapse of the pyramid schemes in which many Albanians had invested life savings. The discontent has grown into a mass movement against Mr Berisha and many Albanians fear it may explode into civil war.

The President had already sacked the government and yesterday added a new scapegoat, the army chief of staff: "Soldiers bear direct responsibility for not taking measures to defend the bases from rioters," said a government statement published in the ruling party newspaper, which appeared on Tirana newstands yesterday.

The offices of Gazeta Shqiptare, by contrast, sat silent and empty of equipment, which was removed by staff after the offices of an opposition daily paper was torched by secret policemen. The Gazeta, an independent daily, has not been published for two days: under the emergency laws all news reports are supposed to be passed by an official censor and all businesses must close by 3pm. The paper has not been shut down in theory but in practice it cannot operate. Its staff are now stocking up on food.

The superficial calm in the capital hides much anxiety about the future. "Tirana is terrified," a Gazeta supporter said.

n Tirana - President Berisha yesterday rejected an opposition call for a broad-based government to end the crisis and said he was "unshaken" in his determination to uphold law and order, Reuter reports.

In a statement read out on state television, Mr Berisha accused the Socialist Party of organising "armed rebellion". The statement said: "You decided to overturn the constitutional order and Albanian democracy through an armed rebellion and created a grave problem for the country."