Young guns fan the flames of revolt

Albania: teenagers relish the power of weapons as insurgents consolidat e their gains and reject peace overtures by Tirana

Bajram thinks this is the greatest day of his life. He's got a delivery truck tanked up and roaring, a Rambo poster is pinned behind the driver's seat and several shots of raki are pumping through his veins. Hugging his left leg, barrel poking out of the window, is a Kalashnikov, loaded and ready for some robust exercise.

In the passenger seat, a friend with a bandana is firing into the middle distance. Both have a glazed, crazy look in their eyes. An old Audi careers around the corner and screeches to a halt. "Hey Bajram, look!" shouts the driver, Fred. He pulls out his own Kalashnikov, fires perilously low, and lets out a demonic laugh.

For the teenagers of southern Albania, the rebellion is like a testosterone dream come true. For the past five years they have been weaned on Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, whose films are shown on Italian television stations and watched avidly in Albania. Now have the chance to behave like macho super-heroes themselves.

The difference is that this is real violence. By far the most casualties have been due to incompetent or reckless handling of weaponry. In Gjirokaster and Saranda, teenagers have been killed and children as young as four caught in the crossfire. A man in Gjirokaster, Matush Gjini, whose 14- year-old daughter was shot in the leg,said: "We've got to lay down these weapons ... We are just shooting each other."

Laying down arms will be the challenge facing the whole region if President Sali Berisha makes good his pledge to form an all-party transitional government and hold elections by June. He has urged the insurgents to give up their arms by the end of the week and although leaders of the rebellion might be willing to consider the option, the teenagers are in no mood to leave a party while they are still having fun.

At checkpoints on the way into Saranda, the rebel stronghold on the coast opposite Corfu, young men are attempting to look cool in army fatigues looted from barracks, pink headbands taken from a women's beachwear shop, and baseball caps. The stimulant of choice is not raki, but finest southern Albanian grass, which lends a mellow air to the spectacle.

A few miles away, near Delvina, the site of incursions by government commandos and bombing raids last week, the atmosphere is tenser and the kids, many drunk, shove guns into the faces of travellers.

Saranda itself is calmer, well organised by the local revolutionary council, led by a retired colonel, Xhevat Kociu, who banned guns from the town centre and established a chain of command. But he admits there are limits to his authority. "Not only can I not force them to give up the weapons, but morally I don't have the right to, since I wasn't the one who gave them the guns in the first place."

It is seems inconceivable that the state will regain full control of its army equipment. At the weekend in Gjirokaster, townsfolk were looting everythingfrom the army base. Masters of smuggling, they are more likely to sell the weapons abroad than give them back, whatever government is in power.

Letters, page 13

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