Albania leader bows to rebels, will widen government, set vote But insurgent leaders say mutiny won't end until president leaves office

March 10, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

VLORE, Albania -- With the most prosperous region of his country in the hands of well-armed insurgents, Albanian President Sali Berisha agreed yesterday to form a new "government of national reconciliation" and hold fresh elections.

Berisha's concession was greeted in the heart of the rebellious south with a deafening unloading of celebratory machine gunfire and grenade explosions. But the rebels said they would not end their mutiny until Berisha is out of office.

"There will be no peace as long as Berisha is in the [presidential] chair," said Skender Sera, a retired army general who is organizing the defense of Vlore, the largest city under rebel control.

Berisha made his proposal in Tirana, the capital, under pressure from Western mediators alarmed at the prospect of an exodus of refugees fleeing the violence in this poverty-racked nation.

In addition to agreeing to elections and the seating of a new government, the rightist president for the first time indicated that he is willing to work with the opposition Socialist Party, whose leaders he called "red terrorists" as recently as last week.

The Socialists have boycotted Parliament for the last 10 months in protest over fraudulent elections in May that gave Berisha an overwhelming majority in the legislature.

Berisha's offer represented the biggest concession he has made since popular anger last month over collapsed pyramid schemes escalated into full-fledged revolt.

But it was not clear if it would resolve the crisis: Berisha's opponents do not trust him, and he gave few details on how or when the new government would be formed, or by whom.

The announcement came during an extraordinary televised meeting between Berisha and representatives of nine opposition parties, who could be seen scribbling furiously -- apparently because it was the first they had heard of the proposal.

Berisha, seated at the head of a U-shaped table, at times raised his voice and cut off his opponents, who often seemed impatient or confused.

Berisha and the parties formalized the agreement in the afternoon, signing a nine-point accord that provided for elections to be held by June under international monitoring. Berisha had insisted earlier on elections within 45 days, while the opposition argued that more time would be necessary for a fair poll.

"This is a big step," Prech Zogaj, representing the opposition Democratic Alliance, said after Berisha made his offer. "Tomorrow will be a different day in Albania."

Socialist leaders at the meeting appeared less enthusiastic. Berisha has been masterful at splitting his opposition, and yesterday's maneuvers may have been more of the same.

"We have come very close to civil war," Socialist leader Pandeli Majko said, clearly irritating Berisha. "But this should not start in Parliament but in Vlore. I see this country divided between north and south."

Politically, much of the south has maintained loyalty to the Communists -- renamed the Socialists -- while Berisha's right-wing Democratic Party of Albania draws its support from Albania's north.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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