Protesters fear Berisha's army is out for blood

A major security operation, including soldiers equipped with tanks and armoured personnel carriers, was under way throughout southern Albania yesterday, but armed civilians appeared to come out ahead in early fighting. Protesters in the southern port of Saranda fired assault rifles and rounds from a commandeered tank at jets flying overhead.

Journalists in Saranda saw Chinese-made MiG-15 warplanes drop a bomb next to two houses in the village of Delvina, and saw smoke from two more bombs. About 400 families, most belonging to Albania's ethnic Greek minority, live in the town. It was not clear if anyone was hurt.

The Defence Ministry denied there had been any order to fire against civilians. But on Tuesday, the crew of an Albanian military jet who landed in Italy seeking political asylum said they had been given orders to bomb civilian targets near the southern town of Gjirokaster, 123 miles south of Tirana.

About 400 hooded and armed protesters are guarding the entrance to the port of Saranda, which is under the control of the insurgents.

Trucks and cars were seen carrying weapons and explosives into the town, most of it looted from army warehouses.

In the town of Stiari, four men were reported injured in a battle with army troops. The fight apparently broke out when four truckloads of troops opened fire on a roadblock.

Vlora, the centre of anti-government protests, has yet to come under attack according to residents. They said most civilians were staying indoors fearful of the military and of the armed protesters. Gunmen are in position on rooftops in the town, they said.

The defenders of Vlora are believed to be well organised and have shored up positions outside the town.

Many Albanians fear that President Sali Berisha will aim at a bloody victory rather than political compromise in Vlora and Saranda. But Western diplomats say the army is poorly equipped and cannot be relied on to enforce the President's will. Among the soldiers are conscripts who invested their meagre wages in the pyramid schemes whose collapse sparked the unrest in January.

The police are another matter. Most come from the north, home of Mr Berisha, and are loyal to him. The regular police have been put under command of the Shik, the secret police, who are much in evidence around Tirana in buildings frequented by opposition and the media.

The capital is quiet. However, the calm imposed by the state of emergency, which includes a night-time curfew and press censorship, has not calmed the fears of those who know they are seen as enemies by the government.

Rome (Reuters) - A group of 29 Albanians fleeing violence in Vlora arrived in Italy yesterday after their small boat was intercepted by a navy frigate in the Adriatic, coastguards said.

The West launched diplomatic moves to find a political solution to the crisis, ruling out military intervention. The Dutch Foreign Minister will travel to Tirana tomorrow to seek talks between the government and opposition, and the Council of Europe is to send a mission there today.

Europe and the US condemned President Berisha. Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, called him "dictatorial".

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