Albania deploys troops to enforce 40-hour coronavirus curfew

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania’s government deployed the army to enforce a strict 40-hour curfew starting on Saturday to fight the coronavirus after people widely flouted previous measures aimed at stemming its spread.

About 120,000 Albanians came back from Italy - the world’s worst-hit country - soon before Albania severed air and sea links with its neighbor across the Adriatic Sea 12 days ago.

So far, 76 people have tested positive for the coronavirus with two deaths recorded, but officials are anxious to avert a sudden jump in infections that would strain limited public health services.

Despite orders to stay at home for most of the day and bans on travel, many Albanians have continued to go out jogging in groups, play dominos in the street and ignore recommendations to keep their distance in queues.

Prime Minister Edi Rama and opposition leader Lulzim Basha, in a rare show of unity, appealed to people to respect the 40-hour lockdown starting at 1 p.m. (1200 GMT) on Saturday.

“Everyone will stay inside after 13:00. Police and the Armed Forces will use force against whoever breaks the law, including pensioners, and will use water canons and tear gas if need be,” Rama said on a social media live feed.

The only exception to the curfew will be for emergencies.

As Rama spoke, police sirens could be heard, marking the start of the curfew.

On Saturday morning, shoppers in the capital, Tirana, streamed into markets to buy food, paying scant attention to distancing measures.

Schools, universities, mosques, churches, bars, restaurants and gyms have been shut down, except for supermarkets and pharmacies during certain hours. Classes are being conducted online.

Albania is preparing two more hospitals in expectation of more cases. At present, four coronavirus patients are stable in intensive care at the country’s specialist infectious diseases hospital.

Two former patients at the hospital have recovered, said Eugena Tomini of the Public Health Institute.

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Helen Popper