`Now all the people have guns, they will never give them up' 42roman oveyr decky

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A curiously muted chaos has consumed the streets of Tirana. Nobody is in charge of the Albanian capital, and random gunmen are driving up and down the city's streets, firing into the air. And yet, there seems to be no air of panic. There is no civil war here, nor is there likely to be: it is more like a popular revolt against a corrupt leadership, fuelled both by fear and by a plentiful supply of weapons.

Residents of Tirana were out early yesterday morning, stockpiling whatever food was available, mostly apples and oranges on sale at a few stalls in the market. There were long queues at the few bakeries which opened yesterday; many were closed owing to a shortage of flour, following the sacking of Tirana's main flour depot on Thursday, when some food stores were looted.

Riza Lahi, a retired military pilot, was loaded down with plastic bags containing huge hunks of feta and yellow cheese, olives, frozen hamburgers.

"I didn't even ask the prices. I just spent all the money I had in my pocket," he said. "I love my motherland, and I don't want to leave, but I'm waiting to see what happens to the political situation."

Dozens of his compatriots, however, were lining up outside the manicured lawns of the US diplomatic compound, where US Marines organised the evacuation by helicopter of about 300 foreigners, mostly Americans, often to the sound of gun-fire. The airlift was suspended in the afternoon after a helicopter was hit by an anti-aircraft missile. Westerners lined up in life-jackets and helmets to board the helicopters sent down from the Nato force in Bosnia.

Bob Durham and his Albanian wife Eva stood with their 19-month-old son Jimmy. Why were they leaving? "Because her mother was hit in the head by a bullet yesterday and my brother-in-law was hit in the face by a bullet today," Mr Durham said succinctly.

Neither was badly wounded, but it was enough to persuade the Durhams to accept the help of the cavalry.

By 9am, Tirana's two hospitals had received nine dead and 159 wounded by gunfire. By 11am, the death toll had risen by two, and during a 15- minute visit to one emergency ward, two men were rushed in with bullet wounds.

Tonin Pellumbi was at home in Laprake, a Tirana suburb, when a bullet struck just above his hip. "He was hit inside the house," said Vladimir Goga, the neighbour who drove Mr Pellumbi to hospital. "It's terrible, too many people are shooting, especially in this area. Nobody can leave their house. Everyone is afraid, and there is so much noise."

Mr Pellumbi moaned in pain as doctors extracted the bullet. He was sent home soon after with no real damage done. Another young man had meanwhile been admitted, hit in the thigh as he sat at home chatting to a neighbour.

In the grounds of the hospital, spent cartridges marked the path of one of the many gunman firing at will in the city. Down the road, three loose horses nosed through a rubbish bin, ignored by passers-by; 50 yards away, a man fired his Kalashnikov into the air. No-one turned a hair. Opposite the head-quarters of the Shik secret police, soldiers massed at a base containing six tanks. We approached the gate. Not unexpectedly, the guard leapt up, pointed his rifle and screamed at us to leave the area. We did.

It was the same at the presidential palace, where plain-clothes gunmen and soldiers guarded Mr Berisha's office. They were very edgy. By late afternoon, the foreign press was comprehensively confused. A phalanx of television cameras and reporters stood in the main boulevard leading to Skenderbeg Square as two police Armed Personnel Carriers, accompanied by carloads of gunmen, drove up and down, firing in the air.

The gunmen flashed the occasional V-sign, symbol of the ruling Democratic Party, but it was not clear if they were trying to protect the President, intimidate the opposition Prime Minister, or perform for the cameras. About 100 soldiers ran into the presidential compound but, again, we had no idea why.

"No one has any control," said Kastor, a secret policeman who had abandoned all hope in Albania and in the regime he served; he was standing outside the American diplomatic compound, trying to get seats on the US airlift. He proffered his passport, complete with one new and two used American visas. He had been to the US, he said, for "training as special policeman".

His wife was articulate, and depressed. "This war situation is terrible - I want my children to live, not to die," she said.

"I don't see a future here, and now all the people have guns. And knowing the Albanian mentality, they will never give them up."