Albanian Protesters Seize Buildings
Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: September 15, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore
Armed crowds seized government buildings in the Albanian capital, Tirana, today in the worst violence there in more than a year. Government security forces later retook key sites and announced they had succeeded in preventing a coup by supporters of former president Sali Berisha.
As night fell, police regained control of a state television and radio center that had been taken over by anti-government demonstrators. Residents said no more shooting was heard and that police had restored order to most of Tirana, setting up roadblocks at main intersections.
The violence in Tirana, which was touched off by the weekend killing of a popular Berisha aide, was the worst in Albania since a civil uprising began early last year after the collapse of fraudulent savings and investment schemes. Police today killed three looters in the capital, and more than a dozen people were reported wounded.An armed mob commandeered at least four tanks and drove them through the city as civilians jumped on board, the Associated Press reported. All tanks but one were recovered. The whereabouts of Socialist Prime Minister Fatos Nano were unknown. The government denied reports that Nano, who canceled a trip to Italy, had resigned. In a television broadcast earlier in the day Nano appealed for calm.
“I call on everyone not to allow anyone to bring back the chaos of last year, to hijack Albania and all of us with it,” Nano said. “No one would forgive us if we let a small group of people obtain power by arms and destroy state institutions.”
When Albania plunged into chaos last year mobs looted army arsenals of hundreds of thousands of weapons. Over 2,000 people died in the ensuing mayhem, prompting Italy to send in a multinational peace-keeping force that helped restore order. Berisha’s Democratic Party was defeated by Nano’s Socialists in elections that followed, and Berisha was forced to resign.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been mediating between the two parties, blamed the latest violence on a minority of hard-liners and said there was no comparison with last year’s unrest. “We’ve made the strongest of calls to all parties that this violence stop,” said Timothy Isles, deputy head of the organization’s mission in Tirana.
Rumors that pro-Berisha supporters were planning a coup had been circulating in Tirana for several weeks. Berisha, speaking on radio, denied accusations by government ministers that he had urged his supporters to stage a coup. But he repeated his call for Nano to resign and for an interim government to be formed ahead of new elections.
The violence was triggered when Azem Hajdari, a leading opposition figure, and his bodyguard were shot dead by unknown gunmen in Tirana Saturday night. Berisha blamed the deaths on Nano, and on Sunday protesters attacked the prime minister’s offices, setting fire to the building and several cars. One demonstrator was shot dead.
Witnesses said several thousand people gathered today for the funeral of the three men in Tirana’s main Skanderbeg Square. Addressing the rally, Berisha again accused Nano of being behind Hajdari’s death but called for a day of peace in his honor.
Demonstrators then carried the three coffins to the prime minister’s office, where gunfire erupted, apparently from guards inside.
Hajdari had been a fiery student leader who played a leading role in Albania’s anti-communist revolution in 1991. He came from the same northern town of Tropoje as Berisha and has galvanized opposition among the tight-knit clans there against Nano, a southerner.
Hajdari also had ties to ethnic Albanian rebels fighting for independence in Serbia’s Kosovo province, just across the mountains from northern Albania. In Tirana today demonstrators chanted “UCK” — the Albanian initials of the Kovoso Liberation Army guerrilla group.