Greek frogmen and U.S. Marines backed by choppers and hidden sharpshooters made speedy forays into Albania on Saturday to evacuate hundreds of foreigners trapped by the country’s descent into anarchy.
Marines using helicopters ferried out more than 300 people from 32 other countries. Greeks stormed ashore at the port of Durres, fired over the heads of an armed mob, and evacuated 250 Chinese, Jordanians and Syrians.
Italian officials said more than 3,500 Albanian refugees had reached Adriatic ports after a 50-mile journey in leaky fishing craft and antiquated navy boats, raising concerns about a repeat of the mass arrivals from Europe’s poorest country in 1991.
Shooting that forced the suspension of the American evacuation effort on Friday diminished in Tirana on Saturday. Police and vigilantes answering to Albania’s weak multiparty government established checkpoints around Tirana and Durres to try to monitor citizens’ movement and take away weaponry.
In the evening, the capital was awash with rumors that President Sali Berisha had resigned, but an official statement read on state TV denied them.
European Union diplomats meeting in the Netherlands reported “solid disagreement” on whether to send a military force to try quiet another Balkan troublespot. Later, they said they would wait until today to verify that Berisha was still in office.
Although there is little organization to the revolt that has gripped almost all of Albania, many people want Berisha out. He and some members of his Democratic Party are accused of allowing risky investment schemes to get out of hand, or directly profiting from them. Almost every Albanian family lost money in them. In the past week, people in many towns have ransacked military facilities and armed themselves.
Despite continuing chaos, Tirana residents were on the streets Saturday to do shopping and errands. Many stood in line to buy sacks of flour and other foodstuffs.
The military hospital reported 10 people were killed in the capital since Friday and more than 85 injured.
In southern Albania, Greek TV reported that armed men used two commandeered tanks to try to rob a bank in Gjirokastra. They fled, leaving the tanks behind, when residents guarding the building opened fire. The attempt came a day after robbers using an armored personnel carrier stole an estimated $5.7 million from another bank.
“Everyone in this country has guns,” said Col. Emerson Gardner, the U.S. Marine commander of the evacuation. Most of the shooting was indiscriminate, “but there have been a few instances of shots directed toward some of our people.”
In addition to Marines on the ground guarding the civilians, U.S. forces had concealed sharpshooters and attack vehicles for extra punch. Cobra gunships roared overhead as evacuees left.
The Greek Defense Ministry said it took only 10 minutes to get 250 people onto Greek warships at Durres. Two Italian helicopters evacuated 43 people, most of them Albanians, from the southern port of Vlora.
The effort to restore order in Albania was spotty, at best.
The head of the feared secret police was fired, and the government said it would not tolerate civilians attacking and emptying armories.
The Albanian government broadcast a televised appeal Saturday, calling on retired, fired and activeduty police officers and soldiers to sign up for a new police force. “Honest citizens” also were invited.
Hundreds of men turned up at police stations, produced identity papers and, with little other check, received Kalashnikovs from police officials.
“We are volunteers. We are coming here to restore order,” proclaimed Perparium Lamaj, who manages a pizzeria and supports embattled President Sali Berisha. Lamaj, 26, wore a newly acquired gun across his back, spare magazines fastened with yellow tape.
By midafternoon, city roads were clogged with new checkpoints, manned by men in civilian clothes carrying automatic weapons, some with their faces covered with knit masks, intent on providing newly acquired police powers and taking back stolen guns. By nightfall, the arms distribution - plus several passes by governmental armored personnel carriers and police vans through the center of town - appeared to have quieted the city. Random gunfire that had rattled this capital for days slacked off.
It was unclear how those receiving the guns Saturday were selected, but several in the crowd indicated the vigilantes were supporters of beleaguered President Sali Berisha.
“We want to restore order,” said Ferit Billa, 20, as he waited with dozens of men outside the steel gates of Police Station No. 2 for a Kalashnikov assault rifle. “We support Mr. Berisha fully. He’s taking the correct line for a democracy.”
“Our nation is in danger of falling apart,” said Alo Fatko, on his first day in the militia corps. “You can’t worry about being nice.”
Only about 100 yards from a major checkpoint in Durres, hundreds of people looted and burned a metal foundry.
The unrest threatens to swamp neighboring countries with refugees. Greece and Italy are most at risk, but there also is concern that the instability will spread eastward to Serbia’s Kosovo province and Macedonia, where many ethnic Albanians live.
By late Saturday afternoon, more than 3,500 Albanians had reached the Adriatic ports of Brindisi, Bari, Otranto and Monopoli. In 1991, after the fall of Albania’s Stalinist regime, Italy was engulfed by two waves of refugees, most of them attracted by images of the opulent West beamed on Italian television.
Early Sunday morning, an Albanian military vessel carrying about 500 Albanians ran aground in rough waters about a mile off the port of Brindisi, Italy, sparking panic among the refugees on board.
Italian authorities immediately began a rescue and two coast guard boats ferried the Albanians to shore.