Rebels dismiss talk of peace

Tirana -- Anti-government forces seized control of most of southern Albania yesterday, leaving the army in disarray and dismissing a deal forged by President Sali Berisha and the opposition for a political end to the conflict.

The latest areas to fall were the ancient town of Berat, abandoned without a fight by the army, and the nearby town of Kucove, where residents pillaged an air force base. One person died after being hit by a stray bullet from celebratory fire.

Rebels had to fight to capture Permet, a remote mountain locality where political activity has been virtually unknown in the six years since the fall of communism. Five people were killed and six were injured.

Rebels patrolling streets and keeping arms away from children said they supported the idea of an all-party government under Berisha's weekend deal, but refused to down their weapons until Berisha resigned.

They accused him of allowing pyramid schemes to flourish before collapsing with the savings of hundreds of thousands. "We don't trust him any more." said Sokol, one of the Berat rebels. "He deserves to be hanged by his tongue."

In Rome, the Foreign Ministry said Italy's ambassador to Tirana was holding talks with rebel leaders from southern Albania on an Italian naval vessel in the Adriatic to foster a dialogue between them and the authorities.

Mr Berisha met leaders of his own Democratic Party and the opposition in Tirana to form an interim government due to oversee early general elections due by June under the accord.

More than 40 people have died in the violence in the past week. Before the weekend deal, parliament had imposed a state of emergency and then re-elected Berisha to a second five-year term, enraging the opposition and dismaying foreign countries.