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Albanian Government Halts Action Against Insurgents

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
TIRANA, Albania

In an effort to pacify armed rebellion in the south, the Albanian government agreed Thursday to halt military operations there for 48 hours. In exchange, opposition politicians called on the insurgents to lay down their weapons and accept amnesty.

The agreement emerged from more than five hours of talks between President Sali Berisha and most of his political opposition, their first meeting since he imposed emergency rule to crush an uprising by armed civilians who have seized control of the southern quarter of this country.

Diplomats praised the talks as a breakthrough. But they and Albanian opposition leaders said the agreement fell far short of the demands for new elections and constitutional reform needed to settle the political crisis jolting Albania.

More ominously, reports from Vlore, the southern town that is the center of the revolt, indicated people there immediately rejected the deal. Organized in an ad hoc "resistance movement," rebellious residents in Vlore and other towns have looted army arsenals and are vowing to fight until Berisha resigns.

Squared off in a tense confrontation, rebel and government armies have, according to reports from the area, had minor skirmishes, though an all-out offensive failed to materialize. In the last 24 hours, seven people were killed in Vlore, and food supplies, such as milk for children, were beginning to dwindle, residents told aid workers in Tirana.

Berisha's decision to meet with the opposition - whom he had dismissed until now as Communist traitors who incited the insurrection - came in response to European and U.S. pressure, as well as an awareness that his own poorly equipped army might not be willing to move against the rebels, analysts said.

There have been reports of army desertions and refusals by officers to obey orders to fight their countrymen. Berisha fired the army chief earlier this week.

Besides agreeing to suspend army operations for 48 hours starting Friday morning, the government and nine opposition political parties called on rebels to surrender weapons in the same period. Citizens who give up their guns and who have not committed "crimes" will be granted amnesty. Berisha also agreed to seek a consensus in naming a new prime minister to replace the one forced from office by the unrest.

"It is not a big step, but it is a step," Neritan Ceka, spokesman for the opposition Democratic Alliance, said of Thursday's meeting.

Ceka and others conceded, however, that the agreement was unlikely to quiet the inflamed passions of the Albanians who have taken up arms.

Collapsing pyramid investment schemes, attractive to a desperately poor population unschooled in capitalism, sucked the life savings from tens of thousands of Albanians. In their rage that followed, they blamed the government and exploded from riots to rebellion.

Thursday's meeting took place on the eve of the arrival of a high-level European Union mission and mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was initially rebuffed by Berisha. The EU gives Albania about $300 million in aid, a third of this impoverished country's national budget.

The human rights situation has deteriorated in Albania since the pyramid collapses catapulted into political protest, in what critics say is a campaign against legitimate dissent. On Thursday, Blendi Gonxhe, a prominent student leader who now works for a Swiss aid agency, was stopped as he tried to board a flight, held overnight by police and then told he was being prosecuted for inciting demonstrations.

"President Berisha's attempts to lump all of his critics, both peaceful and violent, into one group - labeled red terrorists' - is leading to a pattern of human rights abuse," said a statement signed by eight human rights organizations, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch.