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Dozens Killed, More Wounded As Violence Erupts in Albania

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
TIRANA, Albania

The upheaval sweeping Albania finally engulfed this capital yesterday. Gunfire erupted, looters ransacked arms depots and food warehouses, police vanished and U.S. military helicopters swooped in to rescue Americans.

Dozens of people were killed or wounded nationwide as violence, which began as a revolt against President Sali Berisha and the losses many Albanians suffered from fraudulent pyramid schemes, crumbled into nationwide mayhem.

"The situation has degenerated into total chaos and anarchy," said Zef Camaj, a leader of Forum for Democracy, an opposition coalition. "I doubt the government is capable of resolving the crisis."

Automatic gunfire echoed around the capital most of the day and became constant Thursday night, as orange tracer fire crisscrossed the sky and the thump of helicopters startled residents. Most of the shooting appeared to be directed into the air and was not the result of combat.

About 50 Americans, principally families of diplomats, were evacuated aboard four CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters Thursday night, and another 110 were to be airlifted Friday, U.S. officials in Washington announced. More than 2,000 American citizens live in Albania.

The helicopters brought in a contingent from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to reinforce the U.S. Embassy and provide direct communications with three U.S. Navy vessels in the Ionian Sea off the Albanian coast. The evacuees were flown to the ships.

The Pentagon reported that apparently there had been no violence in the vicinity of the embassy. "We have started a process that will take out all the Americans who want to leave," said Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, announcing the evacuation, cited the rapid "breakdown in public order" in Tirana. The closing of the airport, apparently by gunfire in the area, eliminated the principal means of departure for stranded Westerners.

Burns warned Americans in the city: "Keep your heads down. Don't leave your homes, because of the insurrection in the streets."

In an admission that the Albanian government had lost control of the country, Berisha issued a plea to the European Union for international peacekeeping troops to restore order.

By late Thursday, armed gangs roamed most of the country. City after city, first in the south and then the north, has fallen in the past two weeks under violent, mob-style rule. Weapons have been seized from many military bases - often with the encouragement of authorities.

In Shkoder, northern Albania's biggest town, raids on armories Thursday left four dead and at least 22 wounded. In Durres, the country's main Adriatic port, widespread looting was reported and the city was without electricity.

In the capital, law and order simply melted away. Uniformed police virtually disappeared from Tirana's major downtown streets, which were largely deserted by Thursday afternoon. The handful of police and army vans that circulated were carrying men in civilian dress. The army, which has been retreating from the widening insurrection, has evidently refused to act, and many soldiers have deserted.

Bedlam reigned on Tirana's wide Rruga Durresit street, which leads to the airport. Hundreds of looters were having a field day at a mammoth food warehouse. On bicycles and donkeys, in pickup trucks and wheelbarrows, they made off with countless 110-pound sacks of Swiss flour under a hail of bullets fired into the sky.

Some of the looters were white-faced, powdered with flour that had escaped. A noisy traffic jam developed in front of the warehouse, trapping a police van carrying civilians who were firing AK-47 assault rifles. Trucks were piled high with flour sacks; one driver filled his car trunk to overflowing and then roared up the wrong side of the highway to get away.

Tirana had the feel of a city going to war. Two tanks patrolled the city center late Thursday. Taut-faced men filled oil drums and plastic canisters with gasoline at service stations. Long lines formed at bakeries, and panic buying cleared the stalls at Tirana's open-air markets. Few stores opened, remaining instead shuttered behind iron grills.

"We would like Berisha to go, but we don't care so much about the government," said a 30-year-old unemployed mother named Zana, whose neighbor was wounded in Thursday's gunplay.

"The situation is deteriorating so fast and the fear is spreading," said Camaj of the Forum for Democracy. "The people are arming themselves out of self-defense, because they are afraid of what will happen tomorrow."