Villagers kill 16 in Albanian gun massacre

Tirana (Reuter) - Seventeen people died in a gun battle in a town in central Albania yesterday, the most violent incident in two months of unrest in the country, the state Albanian news agency, ATA, said.

ATA said 16 armed people went to the village of Levan in central Albania and killed a local leader. Angry residents "surrounded the group and killed them all. This is the event with the heaviest toll during the past two months in Albania".

Meanwhile, in Vienna yesterday Europe's top security body, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), gave its blessing to an international protection force for Albania, but said it wanted an endorsement for the force from the United Nations Security Council. Albania was swept by violence in January when a string of savings schemes collapsed, costing ordinary people millions of dollars. Rebels seized the southern part of the country in March and since then armed gangs have roamed the area, stealing, looting and killing.

The OSCE said in a statement that it expected that states willing to participate in an Albanian protection force would act "in accordance with the United Nations Charter and OSCE principles and in accordance with appropriate action by the UN Security Council."

In a separate statement released at the end of a meeting of the OSCE permanent council, Italy said it would seek an endorsement for a foreign protection force by the UN.

Several countries including Italy, Greece, France, Spain and Portugal have said they are ready to send troops. Non-European Union members, Turkey and Romania, have also expressed willingness to take part.

Italy said the operation would work on the basis of "a minimum use of force". It said the aim was to create a secure environment for international aid organisations working in the crisis-hit Balkan nation and help prepare elections which are due by June.