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Albanian troubles expose north-south differences


March 11, 1997
Web posted at: 9:45 p.m. EST (0245 GMT)

From Correspondent Siobhan Darrow

VLORA, Albania (CNN) -- The people of Vlora, the southern stronghold of Albania's rebellion, are trying to put their revolt in order, inviting local police officers loyal to their cause to help reign in the chaos.

The rebels, who have named themselves the Salvation Committee, say they won't surrender to this government or any other until their demands are met.

"We'll only find a solution to this problem when the main issue, which is financial, is solved," said Alberto Bukir, head of the Salvation Committee in Vlora. "All political solutions are a bluff."


Government troops have dug in north of the Shkumbin River, pulling back to the historic fault line dividing this river country's two major ethnic groups: the Ghegs in the north and the Tosks in the south.

Their differences threaten to split the country in two, although neither group says it wants to fight the other.

Just across the Adriatic from Italy, Vlora has always been more open to the outside than the more insular north. When communism collapsed, not all those influences were good. Drug trafficking and smuggling flourished in the town, and it became known as Albania's crime capital.

Impatient to live the lives they now see via satellite television, the wealthier Tosks were easy prey for get-rich-quick pyramid schemes. They had more to lose when those schemes collapsed.

And the man they blame, President Sali Berisha, is a Gheg from the north.

"The Tosks provided the leaders of the Communist Party, and the Ghegs felt they lost out in the competition for power," political analyst Mark Almond said.


That gap was something Berisha quickly made up for when he came to office, filling security ministries and the parliament forces with his northern brethren, and fueling distrust in the south.

To an outsider, the whole country may look lost in a time warp. But to the cosmopolitan Tosks in the south, the north is a backwater. The Ghegs are mountain people still deeply rooted to their traditions; they are more isolated and less sophisticated than their southern neighbors.


But like the Tosks, the Ghegs say they don't want the current civil strife to turn into a fight between the two groups.

"We haven't fought in the past," said one middle-aged man. "We have been united and must stay that way. There are too few of us Albanians."

Albania's Tosks and Ghegs have lived in relative harmony for centuries. But with the country now practically split in half, their differences could be exploited by parties uninterested in peace.


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