Italy accused of ramming Albanian boat

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The Independent Online
Italian rescue workers were still scouring the rough seas of the Adriatic yesterday in an increasingly hopeless search for survivors from a patrol boat packed with Albanians which sank on Friday night.

Italian officials confirmed that 34 people had been rescued following the boat's collision with the Italian naval vessel, Sibilla, but that three men and one woman had died. Arguments were still raging, however, about how many were on board and who was responsible for the accident. "You are criminals," one survivor cried from a bus on his way to a military barracks for questioning by a magistrate. Another shouted: "Fifty of us died!"

A navy chief of staff, Angelo Mariani, said there might be more casualties, but denied it was a major catastrophe. The accident was the first to claim lives since Albanians, eager to leave their chaos-ridden country, began two weeks ago to head for Italy in their thousands.

The exodus has thrust Italy's policy on Albania under the spotlight since though the government first appeared to encourage the flight, in the middle of last week it ordered an abrupt halt. The navy corvette, Sibilla, had been ordered to block and try and turn back Albanian vessels. According to the Italian version of events, the Albanian boat had been trying to dodge the navy blockade and had turned straight into the Sibilla's hull. But some survivors accused the Italians of heavy-handed tactics and of effectively ramming their vessel.

The accident was inauspicious for Italy. The country is preparing to head an international task force to Albania, to protect humanitarian aid convoys and help restore some kind of order where there is now an almost total break-down in state authority. The mission, which will involve an initial 2,500 men, from Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Turkey and Romania, is sending troops in the next two weeks. They are likely to remain in place for at least three months, and a similiar number of troops is being kept in reserve.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is drawing up plans for viable gen- eral elections in Albania by June, as pledged by the embattled President Sali Berisha.