Diplomats hunt for answers amid anarchy

Albania in crisis: Opposition leader says parties can restore order as police and gunmen exploit people trying to flee to Italy
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The Independent Online
A delegation of European civil servants was due in Tirana yesterday to advise the beleaguered Albanian government on ways of restoring order.

But it is difficult to see how the 11 European diplomats and military advisers, on a 36-hour fact-finding mission, will be able to help. Jan Comte de Marchant et D'Ansembourg and his European Union colleagues from the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Greece are to meet the Socialist Prime Minister, Bashkim Fino, and perhaps President Sali Berisha, during their brief visit.

The EU team will have to work out how Albania's finest are to conduct operations on the tens of thousands of compatriots now armed with stolen weaponry. However, it is unclear whose party controls the police force and its newly deputised volunteers even in Tirana, let alone elsewhere in the anarchic land.

An Independent photographer who took pictures of the volunteer police was ordered to hand over his film by a secret policeman and was then hit several times in the face while taking the film out.

Fatos Nano, the Socialist Party leader jailed by Mr Berisha's regime on trumped-up corruption charges, was so enjoying his freedom the day after being formally pardoned by the President that he gave two press conferences in Tirana. Albania, Mr Nano said, perhaps following a cue from Western ambassadors eager to avoid dispatching a military force, had no need of UN peace-keepers. The domestic political parties could act as "peace-making and peace- keeping missionaries", and Mr Berisha should "co-operate, not interfere".

Mr Nano, who was freed last week when the capital collapsed into chaos and its jails were emptied, stands a good chance of replacing Mr Berisha if the elections due in May are free of the fraud that marred last year's poll. Then, Mr Berisha's Democratic Party swept the parliamentary elections and he was duly elected leader by his MPs; he has now promised to resign if the Socialists win the next round. Mr Nano's great advantage is that, because of his stint in prison, he is untainted by connection with the pyramid schemes that have swallowed the life-savings of so many Albanians.

In the port city of Durres, hundreds of Albanians yesterday flocked to a beach pier in the hope of a boat-ride out.

Masked gangsters brandished AK-47s at a small stone pier on a beach south of Durres, where hundreds of Albanians gathered in the hope of catching a boat out. Those who had handed over around $250 for a ticket queued at the water's edge as the gunmen called families forward. Women wept and children cried as the gangsters fired round after round in the air, some only inches above the crowd. Dozens waited on the pier to be ferried by a small boat to a larger one anchored in the harbour, but many more hung around on the beach, gazing wistfully at the operation.

Italy is already housing 6,000 who have crossed the Adriatic Sea in the past week. The Italian marines were dispatched to keep order on the boat, as the 800 refugees crammed aboard quarrelled in their desperation to reach foreign land.

"After a week there won't be anything left, no food. That's why people want to go to Italy," Ibrahim Xhoxa said sadly. He did not have a ticket.

The rate of fire increased and the crowd, gathered around an old boat run aground beside the pier, scattered. A phalanx of uniformed policemen, armed with Kalashnikovs, marched up the beach behind a blue van, rifles poised. The gangsters ripped off their masks and stowed their guns in the beached boat. The police arrived and dispersed the crowd by firing in the air, causing a ripple of panic. "Go away," cried a policeman. "There's no ship now."

But it quickly became clear that this restoration of order was purely for show; police and gangsters were colluding in the lucrative exercise, and as the police wandered away the show resumed. "There are enough people, so there is no more room. It's full," yelled one gangster, underlining his call with a burst of fire. The smell of cordite hung over the beach, as the ticket-holders queued doggedly and the wannabes watched.

As Mr Nano pointed out yesterday, "The problem is that [people] are armed."

Refugees rescued

Brindisi (Reuters) - Italian coastguards rescued more than 800 Albanian refugees aboard a decrepit navy ship designed to hold only 50 yesterday after it took on water and threatened to sink.

The operation was the second major rescue in as many days as Albanians flee their homeland in a ramshackle armada. It took the number of Albanians who have crossed the Adriatic to Italy to almost 6,000, Italian officials said.

The rescued passengers told officials they had sailed from the southern Albanian port of Vlora and been at sea for at least 20 hours.

Italy, has said it will grant refugees only temporary sanctuary.