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Rebels Hold Wild Card in Albania

West's efforts increase as rebels near capital

A civilian uprising has left Europe's poorest nation awash with armed insurgents advancing on the capital, a president squirming for compromise with political opponents, and a Europe trying to contain the conflict in this Balkan nation.

Events in Albania, moving fast ever since thousands of people lost money in pyramid schemes, have all the look of revolution.

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But the crisis might also end peacefully with a snap election of a new leader and fresh foreign aid to help quell the rebellion.

Thousands of Albanians with guns looted from the depots of a crumbled Army have moved to within 50 miles of the capital, Tirana. Their advance puts new urgency on talks between President Sali Berisha and political opponents over sharing power and arranging an election, perhaps by June. Progress in the talks has brought some rebels into the negotiations.

Diplomatic intervention by Italy, which fears a repeat of the 1991 exodus of Albanian refugees, led to eight rebel leaders agreeing to call off their advance and surrender their weapons, as long as Mr. Berisha swiftly implements a new power-sharing government. The rebels met with the Italian ambassador to Albania March 10 aboard an Italian naval vessel in the Adriatic Sea.

But Western officials express skepticism that the vast majority of rebels will be so easily persuaded to lay down their weapons. And since no single leader has emerged to lead all the rebel forces, the south appears to be turning into semi-independent modern fiefdoms, rife with firearms.

"I think the people in the south are surpassing us and are advancing more quickly than [the political negotiations] are," says Blendi Gonxhe, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy, an opposition coalition participating in the negotiations in Tirana.

"The danger is that the table will one day not only be with us, but maybe with the people carrying Kalashnikov [rifles]," he adds.

Rebels hold on to guns

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Southern Albanian rebel leaders captured four new towns March 10, including Berat and Permet, as well as Albania's largest military airfield, Kucova. The rebels have seized hundreds of tons of artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov rifles, ammunition, and now Chinese-made MiG fighter planes.

Arben, a teenager in the town of Gjirokaster, got his Kalashnikov March 9, after the town fell to rebels. Like most enraged inhabitants involved in the assault of Army warehouses, he made away with whatever he could get his hands on. Now, he mans a roadblock out of the city. And he says he has no intention of turning in his gun, even after a political solution negotiated in Tirana.

"First Berisha has to go," he says. "Then maybe, but maybe not." This reluctance to surrender stolen weapons, increasingly prevalent on the part of rebels, is making for some serious tension in Tirana. "People are getting scared in the capital," says a Western observer.

Whatever agreement Berisha will strike with the opposition to check the rapidly spreading insurgency, the collection of thousands of automatic weapons circulating freely may be a difficult task. [For the first time on March 11, a revolt erupted in the north, at the town of Bajram Curri, AP reports.]

"We could be looking at three, four years of lots of people with lots of arms in a poor country," adds the Western observer.

The effects of nearly destitute bands of civilians carrying arms were felt near Kruja, where according to a Danish reporter a man carrying a Kalashnikov pulled up to a farmer's house and demanded $200 to stop him from killing his cow. "This amount of arms can only be a destabilizing factor in a region with so much tension," notes Fred Abrahams, an expert on Albania now working for Human Rights Watch in Tirana.

According to Western sources in the capital, banditry, although worrisome, is not the real problem. "The next thing these poor people are going to do is try to squeeze some money out of this. And who wants those guns more than the Kosovars?" adds Mr. Abrahams. Kosovo, a region to the north with a 90-percent ethnic Albanian population, has been under Serbia's rigid control since the 1991 collapse of Yugoslavia. It was given to Yugoslavia after World War I.

Promising new agreement

As rebels advanced north, political foes in the capital quickly achieved a tentative compromise.

Berisha agreed to give the opposition control of half the ministry posts in a new government. Opposition leaders praise Berisha's agreement to give them control over such key posts as the interior ministry, the secret police, and the state-run television.

But officials have quickly grown alarmed that insurgents in the south are plowing north so quickly that it may not matter what sort of political compromise is achieved in the capital.

"The progress made in political discussions in Tirana is really big," says an American political observer close to the negotiations. "But it may just be a lot too late."

Officials say it is essential to begin discussions with the rebels now. Albanian political leaders agree that progress on the political front may be made meaningless if Berisha does not find a way to include the rebels in political negotiations now under way.

One of the key problems in bringing the rebels to the negotiating table is that they are not united behind any one political party. In fact, the rebels did not exist as a political player until they took over one-third of the country over the past 10 days.

The rebels have demanded that people who lost money in collapsed pyramid investment schemes be repaid, and that Berisha, whom they consider responsible for not warning investors about the dangers of the schemes, resign.

Officials of both the opposition and ruling political parties suggest the government is not planning to try to head off a rebel assault. Albanian government forces retreated March 10 and 11, rather than head off the rebel advance.

Officials say the government at this point might not have the capability to hold the rebels back. Thousands of Albania's 54,000 soldiers are believed to have defected, either to join the rebels or to wait out the crisis.

The US and Europe have put forward offers of assistance to a coalition government, but have indicated that such aid would not materialize in the event of continued conflict.

The international community is also considering setting up a multilateral force to disarm the rebels.

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