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Search resumes for victims of Albanian shipwreck

March 31, 1997
Web posted at: 12:11 p.m. EST (1711 GMT)

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ROME (CNN) -- Rescue teams resumed their search Monday for survivors and victims of a shipwreck that killed at least four Albanian refugees trying to reach Italy.

Albanian President Sali Berisha proclaimed Monday a national day of mourning for those who died when the 20-meter boat collided with an Italian warship and sank in the Adriatic Sea.

Albanians blow their car horns in honor
of the shipwreck victims
movie icon
(196K/4 sec. small frame QuickTime movie)
(449K/4 sec. large frame QuickTime movie)

In Albania's rebel-held southern territories, rallies denounced both Italy for the tragedy and Berisha, already the target of weeks of protests. In the capital of Tirana, residents built makeshift memorials to remember the dead.

Tensions flare between Italy, Albania

The incident has enflamed tensions between Italy and Albania and sparked concerns about an imminent Italian-led security mission into chaotic Albania.

Thousands of refugees have fled the country in recent weeks, seeking to escape fighting and protests that began over failed investment schemes that cost many Albanians thousands of dollars. Italy is to lead an international force to Albania within two weeks to ensure the safe delivery of humanitarian aid.

About 13,000 Albanians have crossed the Adriatic to Italy in recent weeks. The Italian navy was ordered to patrol the area and dissuade the refugees from coming to Italy.

Albanian officials claimed that 83 people were still missing after Friday's collision, but Italian authorities say the number is likely to be smaller. Four bodies have been recovered so far, and 34 people have been rescued.

Survivors accused the Italian boat of intentionally ramming the refugees' craft, but Italian authorities said the Albanian boat's captain rammed the warship while trying to evade its attempts to turn it back to Albania.

"The women and children who have perished, lying at the bottom of the sea ... I would like to know what's happened. It's such a terrible thing," said one survivor, Vicktor Godot.

Italian leaders clash over incident

Authorities in the southern Italian port of Brindisi, reception point for most of the Albanian refugees, said they had begun an investigation of the navy ship's captain. Police arrested the captain of the Albanian boat, officials said.

Italian opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi flew to Brindisi after the incident, calling for an end to the Italian navy's attempts to stop the flood of refugees.

"There's no international law that allows a state to stop or interfere with boats carrying civilians, women and children in international waters," he said after visiting with the survivors.

But Italian Junior Foreign Minister Piero Fassino dismissed Berlusconi's remarks as exploitation of a tragedy.

"What happened in the Straits of Otranto cannot hide the fact that Italy has given shelter in a civilized fashion to almost 13,000 Albanians in the last few days," he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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