Rebel forces seize government's southern stronghold

Rebels seized the government stronghold of Gjirokaster in southern Albania yesterday, putting newly arrived troops to flight and seizing thousands of weapons, Reuter reports.

In a humiliating defeat for President Sali Berisha, at least 120 army reinforcements fled on foot shortly after landing by helicopter, and a one-star general was captured by rebels. Hundreds of residents fired newly stolen weapons in the air and a steady stream of cars pulled up at the army barracks just north of Gjirokaster to join in the looting of supplies and weapons.

"The town has fallen to the people. Berisha's troops have turned tail and are in hiding," a rebel leader, Omer Litse, said. Senior rebel officers met last night hoping to have a council in place today to organise the town's defence.

Gjirokaster was the main military base in the region and the latest in a series of towns and villages in the south to fall to the rebels during the past week. The head of the army reinforcements, General Ali Kontrakou, and his aide-de-camp, Georgi Vlnti, were captured by the rebels, Mr Litse said.

Documents with the general showed that the military was planning an assault on the rebel-held southern port of Saranda and on Tepelene, north of Gjirokaster, he claimed.

Army helicopter pilot Veljko Perleka was shot and captured by the rebels. He was in hospital, being questioned by five or six men with Kalashnikov rifles, a Reuters photographer said.

Helicopters ferried in fresh troops yesterday - at least a company of 120 men - from a base in Permet to the east. The troops were taken by lorries to Gjirokaster's square but they were met by heavily armed rebels and angry residents. They turned tail and scrambled to surrounding forests and hills.

About 30km (20 miles) from the border with Greece, Gjirokaster was the last government stronghold in southern Albania and its fall gives the rebels full control of the region.

Austria's former chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, who headed a one-day mission from the 53-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in Tirana yesterday that he had appealed to Mr Berisha to extend the government's 48-hour cessation of offensive military operations for two more days after it was to end at 6am today.

Mr Vranitzky said that Mr Berisha "was very open to the idea". The president yesterday also made a step towards meeting the opposition's demand for new elections, but there was no agreement on timing.