Gunshots signal beginning of the end for Berisha

Vlora rebels vow to oust Albanian president. Emma Daly reports
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Vlora - The dusty streets of Vlora, cradle of the mutiny in southern Albania, reverberated to the constant refrain of machine-gun and automatic weapons fire yesterday, punctuated by the occasional explosion, as the city's gunmen celebrated political triumph over President Sali Berisha.

"It's the beginning of a great victory," said Erhan, a young gunman. "But we are going to give up our weapons only when Sali Berisha is no longer president. Sali Berisha is the enemy of Vlora."

Shortly after 3.30pm, when Mr Berisha made his live television announcement, every gun in Vlora - and there are many thousands - was fired at once. The excitable young men lining the street made their joy known by firing continuously in to the air for three-quarters of an hour. Some exploded hand grenades for the hell of it, others fired at empty buildings or into windows.

"I'm very afraid," said 14-year-old Dorina Hadziraj, as a car drove past, with the passenger firing a Kalashnikov out of the window. "But I am also happy, because Sali Berisha now has gone. He can't be president if we don't want him, and we don't. He is worse than Enver Hoxha."

Dorina and her mother were walking home through the celebratory gunfire. "We aren't safe in this place - Sali Berisha might bring in his people and they might come to our house and kill us," Dorina said. "I am also afraid of these guys with guns, because if they shoot in the air I might be killed."

Albert Shyti, the new de facto leader in Vlora, addressed 2,000 people in the town square at dusk, one or two waving the Albanian flag.

"We will not rest until Berisha is gone and you have your money back," he told the crowd, referring to the recent collapse of pyramid schemes. "We have won a battle, but not the war," said Mr Shyti. "We will not judge by Berisha's words, but by his actions."

Admirers surged around, hugging and kissing him. But it is difficult to see who will meet the protesters' main demand. "We want our money back," the crowd roared. Thousands lost their life savings in the pyramid investment schemes run by Mr Berisha's allies. But the cash is gone, siphoned off to foreign bank accounts or frittered on yachts and helicopters and the other trappings of luxury.

The President's resignation seems more likely. By yesterday morning it was clear that Mr Berisha was in military retreat - his army had surrendered a large swathe of territory, mostly without a fight. On the road from Fier to Gjirokaster, for example, the army's armoured personnel carriers (APCs) which had exchanged fire with rebels on a dirt road leading west to Vlora, had withdrawn. The last government checkpoint, a couple of soldiers at Ballsh, waved cars through.

The first indication that we were in rebel territory came sooner than we had expected. Around the bend of a mountain road, just a few miles from Ballsh, a masked gunman stood beside a pile of stones blocking one lane. Behind him on the verge a sniper, head swathed in blue gauze, lay prone. Along the dirt road, which begins another 10 miles south, rebels waved their guns and asked us where the nearest police checkpoint was.

The night before, soldiers at the Fier checkpoint were asking the same questions. The bridge south of Fier, on the main road to Vlora, is in rebel hands.

On Saturday two army APCs probed the area and exchanged fire with rebels on the bridge, who responded by barricading the road with immovable concrete blocks. "Sorry," they told us. "You can go on foot, but not with the car."

They were extremely nervous, and told us one man had been killed in the shootout with the APCs. We were soon surrounded by dozens of people, keen to get the message across. Gunmen on the bridge told us to leave, others to stay and hear their tale. One of the former, fearful of drawing enemy fire, leapt on the bonnet of our car and pointed his Kalashnikov through the windscreen. We left.

We drove north back to a heavily guarded government checkpoint outsider Fier. The mood was sombre, the soldiers nervous.

"The situation is fifty-fifty, but I think it will get worse," said one one military man. "Maybe there will be fighting. It will be like Los Angeles - the American soldiers fighting the American people."

But perhaps Mr Berisha realised his army, whose conscripts have more in common with the rebels than with the ruling cadre, would not stand for that.

Reporting in Albania, Media+