Albania's troubles mount Italy's role: Naval collision jeopardizes military relief mission.


ALTHOUGH several European institutions were available to serve as umbrella for an intervention force in Albania, their members chose the United Nations instead. The Security Council has authorized such a force, to consist entirely of Europeans and not the usual mix of peace-keepers.

The problem in Albania is nothing like that in Bosnia, which pinned down 50,000 NATO troops. It more nearly resembles Somalia, with anarchy rather than civil war. The military mission is to protect humanitarian deliveries of food and medicine. The potential enemy is organized crime and freelance armed thugs.

The plan was for a European force of 5,000 soldiers or police, most of them Italians, to occupy the ports of Vlore in the south and Durres in the north and Tirana airport. Romania, hoping to qualify for NATO membership, offered 400 troops and Greece, 700. To a large extent, these are neighboring governments, fearing a flood of refugees across their borders, whose chief interest is to keep Albanians in Albania.

Therein lies the biggest problem. A patrol boat out of Vlore, overloaded with refugees, collided Friday with an Italian warship and sank with a loss of perhaps 87 lives. The 34 survivors say the warship rammed their vessel to keep it from Italy, where some 13,000 Albanian have already arrived. The Italian navy denies this, saying its ships are only using persuasive powers.

The result is a crisis in Italian-Albanian relations. It is not likely to be resolved by a joint commission of the Italian and discredited Albanian government, which will investigate the tragedy. So it is not the memory of Italy's 1939 invasion of Albania that puts its U.N. mission at risk, but the current effort at containing anarchy of which the U.N. mission is a part. In addition, with crime and anarchy rampant, the Italian-led forces may find themselves in a police role for which they are not prepared.

For the Albanian people deprived of food and safety, the arrival of European troops in blue helmets could mean resumption of normal life. If the tragedy in the Adriatic makes the available troops unacceptable, aid is less likely to get through and suffering is bound to get worse.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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