Rebels band together to demand talks

Even as a second day of talks on the make-up of a caretaker government continued in Tirana yesterday, rebellious civilians in southern Albania moved to shore up the substantial gains of the uprising.

For the first time since the crisis began in January, the unrest reached the capital, with shots fired at assailants who broke into Tirana's military academy. The towns of Saranda, Gjirokaster, Tepelena, Berat and Kucove announced the formation of a national salvation committee, and are demanding a seat at the talks in Tirana and a role in the new government.

A separate committee for Vlora, cradle of the uprising, has been promised a place in the administration. The appointment of Bashkim Fino, an opposition Socialist from Gjirokaster, as prime minister may be a significant step but has done nothing to satisfy the rebels' main demands: the resignation of President Sali Berisha and repayment of money lost in corrupt investment schemes.

"We are trying to co-ordinate all our activities and operations on the political level," said Abaz Gorani, deputy chairman of the Kucove committee. "We will also have a military side, to co-ordinate our actions if soldiers or supporters of Berisha attack. We do respect Bashkim Fino," he continued, "but we are not happy with any of the political parties. We do not believe in any of them."

The issue at present for the politicians negotiating in Tirana is which party is to control the powerful Interior Ministry and the Shik secret police.

In "rebel" territory, immediate concerns are to restore order and strengthen defences. Gunmen along the main road south to Kucove - where locals seized 23 elderly MiGs - and the town of Berat have built road-blocks in the past 24 hours. In Berat the new police chief, Ilir Helmesi, asked citizens to surrender weapons looted from the military, but few responded.

Miltiadh Vevecka, a doctor at Berat hospital, said: "Only a few guns have been turned in, mostly by people who didn't know how to use them and who therefore damaged them," He was trying to answer the question vexing diplomats and journalists: how to bridge the gap between party members talking in Tirana and the armed citizens who proclaim disdain of all politicians. "The towns' salvation committees will win credibility for the way they restore order, by stopping thieves and the like," Dr Vevecka said. "The new government will win credibility if the national salvation committee is part of it."

But security must first be assured at a domestic level. In the village of Ardonice, between two government-controlled towns, men raided a camp for weapons, with what seemed to be army collusion.

Soldiers told us they would not fight if attacked; half an hour later, they were. They took cover in an olive grove, leaving the Shik and traffic police to mount a counter-attack. The two parties exchanged fire, though it was inaccurate, or aimed at the sky. Within 15 minutes it seemed honour had been satisfied, and the police pulled back, apparently having driven off the interlopers.

In Tirana, television cameraman filmed three men walking from the military academy with rifles and ammunition. A few shots sent passers-by running, but the relaxed bearing of the thieves, in a city policed under a state of emergency, led locals to conclude they were Democratic Party activists. Mr Berisha will need their help if he is to survive the crisis.

So far, none of his concessions has made much impression in the south. "First, we want our money back," said Mr Gorani, asked what would end the revolt. "Second, we want Sali Berisha to resign and to be put on trial. Third, we want Albanian state radio and television to start telling the truth. Four, we want the Shik to behave properly." It is a list that may spell the end for Sali Berisha.

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