Hundreds of rebellious foes of Albanian President Sali Berisha looted the government’s main southern army base on Saturday, driving out helicoptered reinforcements and pushing this dirt poor land closer to an all-out civil war.
The confrontation in the southern city of Gjirokaster, some 25 miles from the Greek border, seemed to remove any chance of a quick deal that would halt the growing uprising against Berisha, a former heart surgeon.
“Everybody is shooting here,” a resident of Gjirokaster said.
The rag-tag popular insurgency in southern Albania is fast becoming organized. In rebel-held zones, tanks stolen from army bases are scattered along the roads. Anti-aircraft guns are positioned in fields. Everyone from teenagers to pensioners wields assault rifles.
In Gjirokaster, city of 30,000, rebels inflicted a humiliating defeat on government forces as at least 120 army reinforcements fled on foot shortly after landing.
“The town has fallen to the people; Berisha’s troops have turned tail and are in hiding,” rebel leader Omar Litse said.
Both the head of the army team, Gen. Ali Kontrakou, and his top aide, Georgi Vinti, were captured by rebels, Litse said, adding that documents they were carrying indicated a plan to assault rebel-held Saranda and nearby Tepelene.
Berisha had called for a 48-hour government cease-fire late Thursday and offered amnesty to the rebels. He gave the insurgents until 6 a.m. today (midnight Saturday EST) to turn in their guns or else face a renewed assault. But the rebels spurned his offer. They demand early parliamentary elections, an interim government and, ultimately, Berisha’s ouster.
“Very strong military equipment had fallen into the hands of the people,” Xhevat Kociu, leader in of the rebels in Saranda said in an interview. Kociu, 47, describes himself as a retired army colonel.
“No way will the people hand over their arms unless Berisha agrees to early elections and caretaker government, which would logically put him out of a job,” Kociu said.
On March 3, a rubber-stamp Parliament re-elected Berisha, a former communist, to a second five-year term. The parliamentary election, held last May, is widely seen in this country as riddled by fraud.
Meantime, in Tirana, the Albanian capital, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., quoted Berisha as saying he might accept fresh elections in 45 days.
But rebel leaders here said that was too short a time and that they didn’t trust Berisha to stick either to his election timetable or to his amnesty offer.