Athens expels Albanian envoy over border clash

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GREECE'S tense relations with Albania came under further strain yesterday following a violent border incident which led to diplomatic expulsions. The acts point to growing volatility in the region, with Greece at loggerheads with Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Diplomats fear minority problems and refugee flows could lead to more cross-border terrorist violence.

On Sunday, armed attackers shot dead two Albanian border-guards. Albania accused Greece of creating the incident. The gunmen shouted slogans supporting the ethnic Greek minority in Albania, reports said, and responsibility was claimed by a group called the Northern Epirus Liberation Front. Northern Epirus is the term for southern Albania used by advocates of autonomy for the Greek minority.

Athens said it was expelling the diplomat after its consul in Gjirokastra in Albania was thrown out. Tirana has not accepted that a rogue terrorist group carried out the attack.

Albania has blamed Greek special forces for creating tensions. The ethnic Greek minority in Albania numbers 60,000 - closer to 400,000, according to Athens. Greece has a big ethnic Albanian population, swollen by refugees following the country's economic collapse. The violence will ring alarm bells in European foreign ministries, concerned fighting could spread from former Yugoslavia.

The explosive mixture of ethnic minorities and disputed borders has always had the potential to spark conflict, and has only intensified with the war in Bosnia. Greece is already at loggerheads with Skopje, which Athens claims harbours irredentist ambitions towards the Greek province of Macedonia. It has imposed a blockade on trade which has been condemned by the European Union.

Today the European Commission will ask the European Court of Justice to rule on whether Greece has broken EU law. Relations between Tirana and Athens have deteriorated following the end of the Cold War and the break-up of Yugoslavia. Greece blames Albanian refugees for an increase in crime. The long-running problem spilled over last year when Greece expelled illegal Albanian immigrants after Albania threw out a Greek Orthodox church official accused of inciting separatism.

There is an ethnic Albanian minority in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, and in Macedonia. There have long been fears Serbia would seek to remove the Kosovo Albanians by force, and there have been reports that rights abuses in Kosovo were on the increase. The Albanian party in Macedonia has split into moderate and radical factions, with the radicals demanding new concessions. If Albanian refugee flows were to swell, Greece would close its borders, diplomats say, and that could trigger further violence.