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Albania passes out guns to allies

With chaos still ruling the streets and Western military teams continuing the helicopter evacuation of foreign nationals, the Albanian government ordered distribution of more guns Saturday in an effort to shore up its police force and rein in rebel gunmen.

After a state television broadcast announcing the gambit, hundreds of men turned up at police stations, produced identity papers and, with little other check, received weapons from police officials.

By midafternoon, city roads were clogged with new checkpoints, manned by men in civilian clothes carrying automatic weapons, some with their faces covered with knit masks, intent on providing newly acquired police powers and taking back stolen guns.

By nightfall, the arms distribution _ plus several passes by governmental armed personnel carriers and police vans through the center of town _ appeared to have quieted the city. Random gunfire that had rattled this capital for days slacked off.

It was unclear how those receiving the guns Saturday were selected, but several in the crowd indicated the vigilantes were supporters of beleaguered President Sali Berisha.

"We want to restore order," said Ferit Billa, 20, as he waited with dozens of men outside the steel gates of Police Station No. 2 for a Kalashnikov assault rifle. "We support Mr. Berisha fully. He's taking the correct line for a democracy."

The gun distribution took place during the second full day of evacuation of foreigners from this small Balkan country, which has seen a collapse of its armed forces and a wholesale upheaval in its governmental ministries. Protests have been spreading since January, after the collapse of shady investment schemes in which thousands of Albanians lost their savings.

U.S. Marines resumed the evacuation of Americans and other foreign nationals from Tirana Saturday, flying a total of 431 Americans out of the country. That completed the rescue of all U.S. citizens who wanted to leave and were able to make their way to the capital.

The operation reportedly went smoothly, without any reported instances of firing at U.S. helicopters. The airlift had been suspended Friday after one Marine helicopter came under fire in Tirana.

Italian officials said 3,000 Albanian refugees had reached that country's Adriatic ports after a 50-mile journey in leaky fishing boats and antiquated navy cutters. Early today, an Albanian military vessel with 500 Albanians aboard ran aground in rough seas; Italian authorities began a rescue operation.

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