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Italy declares state of emergency over Albanian refugees

Hundreds of 'undesirables' sent back

March 19, 1997
Web posted at: 12:31 p.m. EST (1731 GMT)

Latest developments:

ROME (CNN) -- Italy declared a national state of emergency Wednesday as a flood of Albanian refugees has swelled to more than 10,000 in less than a week. The nation also was sending back nearly 300 refugees suspected of being criminals.

And with armed gangs terrorizing many Albanian cities, authorities in the tiny Balkan nation appealed for international aid to restore its shattered justice system.

Italian Premier Romano Prodi's Cabinet on Wednesday morning decided that genuine refugees would be allowed to stay no more than three months. But a decree ordered the expulsion of those considered dangerous.

The first expulsions took place as the Cabinet met.

Describing the flow of refugees as "alarming and difficult to manage," Italy's Interior Minister Giorgio Napolitano told Parliament 289 "undesirables" were being flown from the southeastern port of Brindisi to Albania's capital Tirana in three military helicopters armed with paratroopers.

Albanian justice system shattered

About 10,600 Albanians have crossed the Adriatic Sea to Italy in the past week, Napolitano said. Another 3,500 have arrived in Greece, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In Albania, where insurgents have warned of more unrest, the nation worked to restore its shattered justice system. Justice Minister Spartak Ngjela told state radio that almost all of the country's jails have been destroyed, and that all judicial files have been burned.

"We have prepared a list of urgent needs and have asked for aid from foreign institutions. They have promised to help," he said.

The eastern city of Korca -- where at least 21 people have been killed since last Wednesday -- was caught between rival organized-crime gangs, according to residents and media reports. Masked men were breaking into apartments and had clashed with police Tuesday.

EU delegation visits seaports

Amid the chaos, an 11-member delegation from the European Union traveled to Albania's two biggest seaports, Durras and Vlora, to determine how to deliver food and medicine.

A spokesman for Albania's navy, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Vlora was overrun by mobs who had come to the port seeking passage out, even though there are no boats there. Durras was described as equally chaotic.

Jan Graf de Marchand et d'Ansemburg, who headed the European mission, said aid was contingent on the nation's ability to provide adequate security.

"The whole police and security structure is in a shambles. There are no more prisons. There are no more prisoners, no custom houses. There is no border police," he said in a news conference. "There's hardly an army."

Brigadier General K.C. Roos, another delegation member, said that sending international police trainers was a practical option, but he was unsure whether it was a "political option for the EU."

Anti-government protests have swept through Albania after nearly every family lost money in investment pyramid schemes that collapsed in January.

Correspondent Eric Olander and Reuters contributed to this report.

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