Albania's spreading civilian uprising, which started in the south, has finally brought a sense of paranoia to the capital, Tirana, rallying some northerners to arm themselves and defend one of their own, President Sali Berisha.
Gunfire could be heard in the capital yesterday, and some Western embassies have begun evacuating personnel in case of an all-out civil war.
Western officials say it is urgent that Mr. Berisha - widely blamed for helping bankrupt many Albanians by endorsing failed pyramid schemes - begin to calm the rebellion by working with a new government he was forced to appoint in the last couple days.
But it was not clear whether the new power-sharing government would be able to quell unrest, which has now spread to the north.
Residents of Tirana yesterday morning reported that the weapons depot of a local military school was broken into overnight, and rifles and other weapons were stolen. All the streets that lead to the school were blocked by police and nearby residents were not allowed access to their homes. Some residents suspect the looters were northerners arming themselves against a possible attack by southern rebels.
Tuesday, people in the northeastern town of Bajram Curri, near the Albanian-Serbian border, looted weapons from a military base. The looters do not appear to be part of the antigovernment protest movement that has left most southern cities in rebel control. A local official told reporters the looters "just wanted to arm themselves."
A Western diplomatic source says it is not clear if the beleaguered Albanian government sanctioned the arms looting in the north. She says that would indicate the government is preparing a counterattack against the southern Albanian insurgents who have advanced to within 40 miles of Tirana.
Late Tuesday, Berisha named a leader from his main rival party, the Socialists, to the post of prime minister. Bashkim Fino, an economist, formerly served as the Socialist mayor of the southern Albanian town of Gjirokaster, 20 miles from the Greek border. US officials say the choice of a moderate opposition figure indicates a positive willingness on the part of Berisha to cooperate with the opposition.
But opposition leaders say Berisha has shown little goodwill at the bargaining table.
"It is very difficult to convince Berisha. To have national reconciliation, we need much more honesty, sincerity, much more support from people," observes Fatos Lubonja, one of the leaders of the Forum for Democracy, an umbrella group of 10 opposition political parties.
"Reconciliation cannot be achieved with Berisha, who is guilty for the unrest. The atmosphere of distrust is very high," he adds.
Leaders from both sides say they need to make the new power-sharing government work if they want to avoid civil war. They acknowledge that the wide distribution of weapons into civilian hands threatens peace in the country.
Meanwhile, efforts to persuade the rebels to surrender their weapons appear to have failed.
"Weapons won't be turned in without guarantees. Our basic demand is for Berisha to resign," says Fuat Karali, a rebel leader in the southern port town of Saranda.
Southern Albanian insurgents reported Tuesday that they have organized local "rebel councils" in several towns they control, and have united into a quasipolitical body called the National Committee of Public Salvation. The committee calls for Berisha's resignation and demands to be included in political discussions under way in the capital.
Some Western embassies have urged their citizens to leave the country as the unrest spreads closer to the capital. France and Italy have ordered all nonessential embassy staff, dependents, and citizens to leave. The United States announced yesterday that it would evacuate all nonessential personnel as "a prudent precautionary measure." In addition, it is advising all American citizens in Albania, currently numbering 2,500, to consider leaving the country.
The British Foreign Office has urged 200 British citizens and staff to leave on a voluntary basis.
"The longer the delay, the more difficult and dangerous any departure may become. At the moment, most commercial airlines and ferry companies are operating normally, but this may change," said a spokesman for the British Foreign Office on Tuesday.
As unrest spread to the north, the conditions in the rebel-held south deteriorated. More than 40 people have been killed in the past 12 days of turmoil, many by stray bullets. Local officials in some southern towns are appealing to their citizens to put away weapons seized after rebels looted military arms depots and to stop an almost nonstop barrage of shooting into the air.
Reports from the rebel stronghold of Vlora say there are so many Kalashnikov rifles now available, the street value of one has now fallen to as low as $1.
There are concerns that the spread of unrest into the northeastern region of Albania could ignite a larger conflict with neighboring Kosovo.
In neighboring Yugoslavia, the Serb-held enclave of Kosovo is 90 percent Albanian, and many of its citizens would like to secede. International officials fear a civil conflict in Albania could also draw in neighboring Macedonia, which is about 22 percent Albanian.