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In Albania, rebellion sputters

Armed bandits rolled up to the regional government bank in the center of this southeastern town on three nights this week, freely firing automatic weapons in the air and running off with everything they could carry.

Thursday morning, no one here could explain just how or why thugs continue to plunder the bank _ although the ski-masked gunmen have yet to figure out how to crack the vault.

"We're hoping for calm," said Ermir Asllani, a teacher who won't get his salary this week because of the nightly raids at the bank. "The town is in the hands of bandits."

Far from the capital, Tirana, towns in southern Albania still rattle with gunfire after midnight and are paralyzed in their efforts to quell upheaval and criminal chaos. In this town, residents live amid rumors and fear. Neither citizens' groups nor local governments appear to be able to restore order.

Some of those who claim to lead the armed townspeople here say they aim to topple President Sali Berisha. But it became clear during interviews Thursday that they have no plans to leave their towns to take their case to Tirana.

Other ostensible local leaders, those who claim to be in charge of the local governments, also appeared in separate interviews to have no energy to take on Berisha.

Indeed, what began as a grass-roots civilian revolt, sparked by genuine anger over failed investment schemes, has settled into a vague, lawless tantrum with no clear political agenda.

Civilian rampages through military weapons warehouses three weeks ago have spawned no clear momentum for a revolution or coup. What perhaps can best be described as a resistance movement has but one clear goal _ the resignation of Berisha _ but no obvious means or organization to make that happen.

Phones work erratically in some places in this impoverished country and fax machines are nonexistent in others. Communication, therefore, appears to be slim among towns in the south, where the revolt first flared on March 2. Some protest leaders here spout bellicose warnings that they will arrest Berisha or even attack him, but at day's end their words hang as empty threats.

It remains unclear what steps are needed to regain control of the south and who is in charge of any single town. Agim Gozhita, a retired general who has taken charge of the uprising in Gjirokaster, said the municipal government is operating under orders from his new military command.

Gozhita allowed that "there are problems with criminals and thieves, but we are putting things in order."

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