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French, Italian troops lead mission to Albania

April 15, 1997
Web posted at: 1:47 p.m. EDT (1747 GMT)

DURRAS, Albania (CNN) -- The first phase of a multinational aid operation got under way shortly after sunrise Tuesday, when a French warship arrived in the Albanian port of Durras.

The hundreds of French and Italian troops who disembarked are part of Operation Alba, designed to bring relief to the impoverished Balkan nation plagued by political chaos.

"The government of Albania extends it s best thanks in the name of the Albanian people for the readiness they have demonstrated in helping us at this delicate time," Albanian Prime Minister Bashkim Fino said in a statement.

The operation began on a note of caution. Intelligence reports warned of an impending guerrilla attack, and French marines swept the port area before giving an all-clear.

Braving strong winds and cold temperatures, 450 well-armed French marines rolled out at Durras, while nearly 200 Italian paratroopers landed at an airport near the capital Tirana. An Italian transport ship unloaded another 270 soldiers, while 250 more waited their turn to come ashore from a Spanish vessel.

The troops who arrived Tuesday will set up points of entry at Durras and Tirana for the remainder of the humanitarian force, made up of 6,000 troops from eight nations. Greek and Turkish troops will join the Italians and French next week.

Their first task will be to secure the 20-mile highway between Tirana and Durras to protect aid deliveries. They hope they won't have to use the heavy firepower they brought with them.

Different goals than in Bosnia

Military officials, led by the Italians, point out that Albania is not Bosnia -- and that they have taken on less in this mission -- in the hope of accomplishing more.

Unlike Bosnia, the Albanian mission is starting out with clearly defined objectives -- to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid and to help bring calm so this troubled country can move toward planned elections in June.

But food aid alone is not going to cure Albania's turmoil and suffering. And there's concern among relief agencies that too much food could create yet more problems.

"It's clear that we have to be extremely careful with not, for instance, flooding the country with food because this would only attract bandits." said Nina Winquist of the Red Cross.

Most Albanians say they want nothing more than an end to the spiral of violence and anarchy which brought death to hundreds.

But given that three-quarters of the army's weapons are still thought to be missing -- and possibly in the hands of a once widely insurgent population -- stability may be some way off.

And many Albanians say they want the new force to do more than help deliver food. Disarming the rebels, some say, should be first on the list.

In Vlora, a center of the rebellion, insurgency leaders told crowds of supporters that President Sali Berisha and his supporters planned to attack the city.

"Go and get your guns and take up defense positions," Albert Shyti told those gathered in the city center. A similar warning of an attack in February never materialized.

Vlora, 50 miles from the capital, is one of the towns to be secured by the humanitarian troops, who for now appear to be receiving a cordial welcome. But experience shows that military interventions, no matter how well-intentioned from the start can end in grief.

Correspondent Brent Sadler and Reuters contributed to this report.


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