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Rebels try 'traitors' as Albania stumbles closer to civil war

Yannis Behrakis Reuters
Friday 07 March 1997 00:02 GMT

Sarande - Heavily-armed rebels in this picturesque southern Albanian port prepared to send a secret police officer to a "people's court" in the town square yesterday as they fortified hilltop defences against a possible army attack.

Insurgents who seized control of the town in the anti-government riots at the weekend dug in on hilltops at the eastern entrance to the town. Rebel checkpoints were set up and barricades raised to defend Sarande against any attempt by regular army troops to crush the uprising.

Undeterred by a state of emergency, the insurgents hold sway in Sarande, the larger port of Vlora and several other points in the south.

Thousands of Sarande's inhabitants have joined the uprising against President Sali Berisha, seizing an array of weapons from state arsenals during the weekend rioting.

Hundreds of rebels paraded through the streets of another town, Tepelene, firing into the air with Kalashnikov rifles seized from an army barracks.

Wrecks of cars and army vehicles littered the city centre, and huge stocks of dynamite were piled in the barracks.

"We will not return our weapons until Berisha resigns," said one colonel. "The army in southern Albania has gone over to the side of the people. We took Kalashnikovs away from the children."

An Italian nun, speaking by telephone yesterday to the Italian news agency, Ansa, from Vlora, said the army had cut off the town. A hospital had been looted during the night, and no medicines were left to treat the sick and wounded. "They have taken everything away, and we don't know how we are going to treat the burns and gunshot wounds."

Seven Albanian soldiers requested political asylum in Greece yesterday, the first to do so since Albanian rebels and the army clashed near the Greek border this week, a Greek defence ministry spokesman said.

The soldiers would be considered political refugees until the foreign and public order ministries decided whether to grant them asylum, spokesman Dimitris Katsoulis said. He had no details on the circumstances under which the soldiers turned themselves over. He said all of them had been on active duty inside Albania.

Sarande is in the south-west corner of Albania, just across from Corfu and north of the Greek border. For five days, locals have run riot, firing new Kalashnikov assault rifles in the air, driving a seized tank around the town and sporting headscarves and ghoulish masks to hide their faces.

Former army officers, siding with the rebels, have organised hundreds of gunmen into units, set up well-fortified defensive positions and established radio links with rebel strongholds in the nearby hills.

"We're telling everyone to uncover their faces. We're not criminals. We're freedom fighters who are fighting for everyone in Sarande," said a group leader at one of the barricades at the entrance to the town.

Heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft artillery were being placed around the position, and camouflage was used to cover weapons for the first time.

Rebel groups were also moving into the hill country to the north of Sarande, where the first clash took place with about 60 army regulars on Wednesday.

In the town, a man accused of being a police agent was being held by the rebels and was to be sent before a "people's court".

The rebels tied another suspect to a telephone pole and kicked him repeatedly in the face. He was dragged before an enraged mob in the square where he "confessed" over a public address system. His fate is unknown.

Sarande was mostly quiet yesterday, unlike previous days this week when bursts of automatic rifle fire have filled the air as boys and men alike tried out their new weapons. But there was little spontaneous gunfire yesterday, and most people were busy preparing for a possible assault. A tank was seized on Wednesday and paraded around town with a pack of gunmen aboard, but yesterday it was set up behind a well-built defensive position to the east of Sarande.

A main bridge about 12 miles east of Sarande was bombed on Wednesday, limiting access to the coastal town from the army barracks to the north or from the Greek border to the south.

Four army tanks were parked on the main north-south road at the Muzine junction, which leads to Sarande, but soldiers let cars detour around the tanks without interference.

A deep crater was blasted in the roadbed on the bridge during the first clash between rebels and army troops in the area- by which side was not clear - and only cars can skirt around it. After the bridge, rebels control the area. Several miles down the Muzine road, well-armed gunmen stopped cars at rebel checkpoints. For the first time rebels searched cars before letting them pass. "We have a war on. What else can we do?" asked one gunman.

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