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Loyal Shik stays defiant to the end

"We hit him for 16 hours and he kept saying the same words: 'Fuck off' and 'Viva Sali Berisha'," explained "Jim" Baro, a young gunman standing beside the hospital bed, sheets stained with blood, where Ramazan died. His crime was unforgiveable to the rebellious forces in Vlora, for Ramazan worked at the heart of President Sali Berisha's security apparatus.

In the mutinous towns of southern Albania, contempt and fear are united in the word that signifies the enemy - Shik, the acronym for Albania's national information service, better known as the secret police. And Ramazan was caught with, it is alleged, a hitlist of people in Vlora. The evil-doers from Shik are everywhere; but they loom largest in the minds of the populace, especially in a city like Vlora, where Shik was said to have destroyed electricity lines to the city and to be planning to poison its wells.

"This is Enver Hoxha's atmosphere of paranoia," said Fred Abrahams, an American researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But paranoia is always founded on a grain of truth."

Ramazan, who was filmed alive by the BBC on Sunday, hours before he died, shared a hospital room with another Shik prisoner, Nikoli Nikola. The latter survived because he confessed to his crimes.

"I was sent to Vlora to do my work," Nikola said from his hospital bed, the whites of his eyes flooded crimson. "I was sent here to spy." He smoked constantly but seemed relatively relaxed, despite the endless traffic of gunmen through his room. "I have only worked for Shik for one year and two months."

Most of the information came directly from a rebellious gunman: "I've been talking to him for 10 days so I know the story," he said. "The dead guy was paid 50 million lek [pounds 32,000] for going to Vlora and shooting the people on the list, this guy was paid 120,000 lek a month."

He said Nikola had been shot in the leg during his arrest; locals spotted several Shik agents firing at people in the town. One local said that Nikola would be released, while Ramazan's body would be held in the Vlora mortuary until his family comes to collect it

The Shik are thought to be everywhere. Ironically, they are identifiable by their lack of identity: faces that are unknown to Vlorans manning checkpoints and cars without licence-plates. "Even now among us there could be Shik, nobody knows who they are," said Toni, a man attending the routine anti- Berisha demonstration yesterday.

The rebellion in the south should do much to break the Shik stranglehold. How easy will it be to intimidate civilians armed to the teeth? The Shik are the descendants of Enver Hoxha's Sigurimi, with which one- third of the population was said to have collaborated, and which was supposed to have been reformed in 1991. By the end of 1992, however, Mr Berisha's Democratic Party had begun to use the Shik as a tool against opponents. Although the Sigurimi leaders were removed, many middle-ranking operatives moved to the new force.

Rome (Reuters) - Italy said rebel leaders from Vlora had agreed yesterday to end their uprising in return for swift implementation of the peace deal between President Berisha and his political opponents.