Troops Control Unrest in Albania

TIRANA, Albania -- Albanian troops surrounded the central bank Monday and guarded state television headquarters in Tirana after a day of clashes in the capital, a prison riot and waves of protests around the Balkan state.


President Sali Berisha, faced with his biggest crisis since winning power five years ago, assumed special powers Sunday enabling him to deploy the military to protect key strategic sites after government and local authority buildings were set ablaze in several towns in the south.


The unrest has been sparked by growing anger over the collapse of pyramid investment schemes into which Albanians have poured billions of leks (millions of dollars) in cash.


Thousands turned to violence when two out of 10 national schemes closed down, leaving some families destitute and others fearing their investments in other funds could also disappear.


In an atmosphere of growing anarchy, inmates at a jail in central Albania fought with wardens and police and torched cells Sunday in a foiled breakout attempt, a top prison official said.


Two prisoners were killed in the riot at Bardhor jail, near Kavaje, 50 kilometers west of Tirana, and three others injured, the deputy director-general of prisons, Bedri Coku, told a news conference in Tirana.


Two police officers were also hurt in the clash, described by Coku as the worst prison revolt since 1990, when a popular uprising topped the hardline communist regime.


"After they heard the main news, they tried to exploit the situation and wanted to break out of prison," he said. "They were influenced by the recent events of vandalism and destruction all over the country."


Police reinforcements were called in to break up the riot and the situation was now under control, he said.


Security in all of Albania's jails has been stepped up and Coku said prison authorities would not hesitate to call in the army if trouble got out of control.


The capital appeared calm Monday with commuters mingling with scores of police officers around the central Skanderbeg Square. Soldiers armed with submachine guns, who had been stationed around ministry buildings Sunday, were no longer on guard there but had taken up position around the Albanian central bank and buildings housing state television and radio.


In Shkoder, a city 120 kilometers north of Tirana, at least 4,000 people gathered in front of the prefecture in a fresh demonstration against the pyramid schemes. Witnesses said the mood was tense but so far peaceful.


"There are about 4,000 to 5,000 people on the main boulevard in front of the prefecture but it is all calm at the moment," a witness said.


After one of the most violent days seen in Albania since 40 people were killed in food riots in 1991, the ruling right-wing Democratic Party government met in an emergency session to try to restore order.


Albania's parliament, sitting on a Sunday for the first time since the Democrats swept to power in a 1992 general election, voted to give Berisha the power to deploy troops to unblock roads and guard government buildings.


"This decision has nothing to do with a state of emergency but the traffic, water depots, oil reserves, town halls ... and strategic sites should not be attacked," Foreign Minister Tritan Shehu said.


So far there have been no fresh reports of disturbances in the south where protesters Sunday set ablaze town halls, courts and offices of the ruling Democrats.