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International relief force to arrive Tuesday in Albania

April 14, 1997
Web posted at: 7:48 p.m. EDT (2348 GMT)

Latest developments:

DURRAS, Albania (CNN) -- Navy ships filled with troops sailed Monday from Italy for Albania, where a relief mission is taking shape in the wake of civil disorder triggered by failed investment schemes.

Nearly 1,200 French, Italian and Spanish soldiers will land by sea and air Tuesday to establish two bridgeheads for the Italian-led security mission to the troubled Balkan state.

The landing at Durras will involve 450 French, 350 Spanish and 200 Italian soldiers, said Admiral Guido Venturoni, Italy's defense chief of staff and overall commander of the eight-nation relief force.

In addition, 150 Italian paratroopers are scheduled to land at Tirana airport.

The force will number up to 6,000 at full deployment, which is expected to be completed over the next three weeks. The force comprises soldiers from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Austria, Denmark and Romania.

The troops will be delivering food, medical aid and other support, but rules of engagement for the mission, dubbed Operation Alba (Dawn) by Italy, include the right to self-defense.

Red Cross: One in 10 Albanians needs help

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has distributed food and medicine across violence-plagued Albania since last month, estimates one in 10 Albanians needs relief.

That breaks down to about 70,000 families, representing 10 percent of Albania's population of 3.4 million, said Red Cross spokeswoman Nina Winquist-Galbe.

Albania crumbled into near-anarchy after the collapse in February of fraudulent savings schemes in which many people had invested their life savings.

Mission leadership a first for Italy

Italy's leadership role in such a mission, which lacks a clear mandate and poses substantial risk, is a first. The mission has the blessing of the United Nations Security Council, but political support in Italy itself has been lukewarm.

"The problem we have is that we have good soldiers, good commanders and bad politicians," said political analyst Paolo Garimberti.

Rome was spurred into action by the arrival of thousands of Albanian refugees on its shores. Some observers contend the mission is less about Albania and more about helping Italy avoid being swamped by refugees.

The mission's mandate, to see the safe distribution of aid, falls far short of what many believe is needed. The troops have no authority to disarm tens of thousands of Albanians who seized weapons from abandoned military posts.

Despite a warm welcome for Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Albania over the weekend, there are fears that in southern Albania, a strong Mafia presence could prove disruptive. The Mafia has extorted money from refugees and businessmen using the port at Vlora, and may resent any multi-national force shutting down that operation.

As Prodi met with Albanian leaders, there also were worries that supporters of Albanian Prime Minister Bashkim Fino or his rival, President Sali Berisha, would see the Italians as taking sides in local politics.

"Does the military expedition support Berish or Fino or other politicians there? It will be a big mistake to support one or another," Garimberti said.

As the operation accelerates, so do the risks. The food will be welcome at first, just as it was in Somalia. But the deep political divisions and distrust, together with the massive availability of weapons across Albania, loom large in the minds of many.

Correspondent Jim Clancy and Reuters contributed to this report.


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