War in The Balkans: Helpless Albania relies on the West

Click to follow
DURING HIS tyrannical reign over Albania, the Maoist dictator Enver Hoxha built almost one million concrete pillboxes to defend his country and unify its downtrodden people against invasions that he knew would never happen. Like Slobodan Milosevic, he realised that there was nothing to compare with the threat of war to marshal a country's people behind its leader.

The crumbling bunkers still litter the countryside, pointing comically in all directions like pale mushrooms, which are a constant reminder of the futility of Hoxha's rule.

Finally, yesterday, someone did invade. Serbian infantry took the border post at Kamenica and torched two towns. And the pillboxes, used for decades as toilets and mangers, proved to be just as useless as Hoxha had always known they would be.

Such helplessness in the face of aggression is one of the reasons the Albanian government last week invited Nato to take over its sea and air ports. Even before the civil unrest of 1997 which brought down the government of Dr Sali Berisha, Albania's military was somewhat toothless. After, when military arsenals had been littered by angry civilians (and sold on to the Kosovo Liberation Army), it was positively moribund.

According to the latest publicly available figures, Albania's rag-tag army boasts 859 battle tanks, 103 armoured personnel carriers and 823 artillery pieces. The Navy has one submarine and 31 patrol boats, and the Air Force has 98 combat aircraft. What the figures do not say, however, is that much of the hardware dates from the Sixties, is Chinese-built and would not look out of place in a military museum.

So when news of the incursion reached the people of Tirana, where in the past there would have been fear, there was only anger and indignation. After all, Albania is now becoming Nato's launch pad for any ground action against the Serbs in Kosovo.

"The Serbs are cowards - they would never dare attack us now we are with Nato" said Tatjana Muka, 35, a shoe shop assistant. "I hate the Serbs and in the past, I would have been scared they would have invaded all the way. But not now."

Yesterday, evidence of Albania's status as Nato's new forward base was beginning to emerge at Durres, the country's main seaport, and at Tirana airport, where a military build-up is gathering pace in tandem with the aid effort.

Until recently, Autum Daniels from Seattle had no idea where Albania was, much less Kosovo. But here she was, standing in the airport mud, a tiny figure carrying an M60 sub-machine-gun almost as big as she was. "I'm here for the people," she said. "I've seen the pictures of babies crying and families being forced out of their homes and I don't like it. Of course, we've all talked about more serious conflicts, but that's not why we're here right now." All around Airman Daniels, other American, French, Greek, Turkish and Dutch soldiers were busy doing their bit to feed 600,000 in camps all over the region.

But with the presence of "Operation Hawk" personnel preparing the way for the arrival of Apache attack helicopters from America, one could not help feeling that a beach-head was being created for the arrival of less humanitarian equipment. Last Friday, Durres, west of Tirana, was a sleepy harbour for ferries to and from Italy. Yesterday, huge French troop carriers were there, disgorging hundreds of soldiers. Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity, has been complaining for some time that the use of Nato troops at refugee camps, while Nato is bombing Yugoslavia, is compromising the camps' status as neutral places of safety.

At Tirana airport, the lines appeared more blurred than ever. Operating around the clock, its single airstrip had been taking up to 60 transporter planes a day. American C-17 Globemasters and C-130 Hercules from Ramstein in Germany accounted for two-thirds of the flights, the rest being operated from other Nato countries.

Once on the ground, the aid is distributed by a fleet of 30 helicopters, including US Navy Sea Stallions and Dutch and Greek H-46 twin-rotor aircraft. The effort and organisation involved is staggering. Many countries are participating, but this is mainly America's show. And other military equipment is arriving too.

Almost 500 US military personnel are already on the base, building Mash- style tents, radar and communication systems. They have taken over air traffic control and logistics on the ground. US service personnel have worked unstintingly in cold, wet conditions, and they are rightly proud of their achievements. But the structures being set in place smack of permanence rather than a swift swoop into an improving situation. Nevertheless, they are delighting the Albanians, who believe their reward will be new roads, airports, communication systems, defence improvements and regional stature. "We have blown it twice before, allying ourselves with Russia and then with China," said Major Vladimir Avdia, an Albanian MiG-19 fighter pilot. "But now it's Nato. We are sharing our facilities now and later we will be given help to improve our infrastructure. It is wonderful for morale."

As news spread of yesterday's incursions into Albanian, the Albanians were more sure than ever that their new partnership was a positive step forward. For Nato's part, it knows that if there were to be a ground war, here would be a good place to land troops.

"We already have an advanced team conducting surveys for the arrival of the Apache helicopters" said Master Sergeant Michael Land, one of the USAF's spokesmen. "Certainly, in the event of an escalation in activity, this airfield would become a very important centre militarily."

It remains to be seen just how big the tiny, muddy airfield outside Tirana will grow over the next few months. In a few years, perhaps, it may even have its own bowling alley and a bar serving Budweiser and Michelob.


Days 20, 21

Monday 12 April

8pm: Air raid sirens sound in Belgrade, Nis, Kragujevac and Podgorica.

9pm: Yugoslav news agency Tanjug says third civilian has died in hospital after a Nato missile hit a car on the road between Pristina and Kosovo Polje earlier in the afternoon.

Tuesday 13 April

1.15-1.30am: Four big explosions heard in Pristina.

2.30am: Three explosions shake eastern Belgrade close to city centre. Tanjug says a military barracks hit.

6.35am: Air raid alert in Belgrade ends.

8.45am: Nato planes hit a Yugoslav army barracks and fuel trucks in Pristina.

9am: Madeleine Albright meets Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, to encourage Russia back into search for peace.

Midday: Italian news agency reports Serbian forces have crossed the Yugoslav- Albanian border and occupied Albanian village of Padesh.

1pm: Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, says he has been informed by Yugoslav Foreign Ministry that Australian aid workers will be charged with spying.

3.30pm: Serb forces withdraw from Albanian territory after surrounding the northern village of Kamenica and exchanging fire with Albanian border guards.

3.30pm: Yugoslav Foreign Ministry denies allegations that Serb forces entered Albania.

3.40pm: Tony Blair says Britain will send extra 1,800 troops to help the humanitarian effort.

5pm: Nato says that Slobodan Milosevic now has 23 battalion-size units in Kosovo.

5.15pm: Nato's military commander, General Wesley Clark, says he has requested 300 more US aircraft for air strikes.

5.30pm: Russia announces two more warships will sail to Mediterranean.