Row over Albania's Greek minority fuels Balkan flames: Athens and Tirana at odds over group that has re-found its identity, writes Tony Barber from Gjirokaster

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IN THE crumbling, sun-baked villages of southern Albania, another Balkan ethnic conflict is coming to the boil. Activists representing the local Greek minority are demanding that the region, which they call Northern Epirus, should be united with Greece. For their part, the Albanian authorities accuse Greek politicians and leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church of inciting the minority to secession.

Gjirokaster, the main town in southern Albania, was the birthplace of the country's late dictator, Enver Hoxha. It is an overwhelmingly Albanian town, but the villages dotted around it are inhabited by Greeks. In these villages, on the pale stone walls of decaying buildings, Greek activists have daubed slogans such as 'Northern Epirus equals Greece' and 'Always Greece, Never Albania'.

Thomas Kyriakou, the leader of Omonia, the biggest ethnic Greek political movement in Albania, said that the government in Athens should intervene in support of the Greek minority. 'We are tired of Greek politicians who talk a lot but do nothing to ensure our safety,' he said.

Tensions between Greece and Albania flared in late June when Albania expelled a Greek clergyman, Chrysostomos Maidonis, from Gjirokaster. Albania's President, Sali Berisha, said Mr Maidonis had distributed maps and leaflets calling for the annexation of southern Albania to Greece. He alleged that the Greek consul in Gjirokaster had tried to prevent the deportation of Mr Maidonis.

No sooner had he been ordered out than Greece began to expel thousands of Albanians who had crossed illegally into Greece in search of work. By last Friday, at least 26,000 Albanians had been sent back. Many alleged that Greek policemen had beaten them, prevented them from taking back their possessions, or torn up the money in their pockets.

The expulsions were a blow to Albania, because the illegal immigrants earned hard currency to support their families at home. Their wages were low but could be at least twice the pounds 20 a month paid in Albania's state sector. Besides, a ragged underclass of Albanians can find no work at all in their own country.

The other aspect of the dispute concerning Albania's Greek minority is potentially more serious. Under Hoxha's ruthlessly repressive form of Communism, Greeks and Albanians were treated with equal severity. Both communities were denied political rights and freedom to practise religion, which was banned in 1967.

When Communism collapsed in 1991, the ethnic Greeks rediscovered their identity. But like minorities elsewhere in Eastern Europe, particularly those who live next to a country that speaks their language and has a traditional interest in their region, their activities aroused concern and suspicion. Albania's new rulers fear a Serbian-Greek plot in which the Serbs will destabilise northern Albania and the mainly Albanian-populated Serbian province of Kosovo, while the Greeks will stir up trouble in southern Albania.

There is disagreement over how many Greeks live in Albania. The Albanian authorities put the number at 60,000, but Greece puts it at 250,000 or more. Albania's total population is 3.3 million.

President Berisha accused the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul of interfering in Albania's affairs by appointing Mr Maidonis and three other clergymen from Greece to minister to the Orthodox community in Albania. He said Orthodox clergymen in his country should be native Albanians or come from the Greek minority. However, the Communist suppression of religion means that there are virtually no properly trained Orthodox clergymen in Albania.

Underlying this dispute is an Albanian suspicion that Greek politicians and clerical leaders want a strong Orthodox presence in southern Albania to justify their estimate of the size of the Greek minority. Albanians fear that the next step would be a Greek territorial claim on the area, particularly if Ethe Balkans collapse into a general war.

Athens points out that it has ruled out such a claim, and also that it has proviTHER write errorded much help for Albania during its current economic misery. In addition, Greek officials say that if there is a threat to state borders in the Balkans, then it comes from Albanian nationalists who are campaigning to unite Albania with Kosovo and Albanian-inhabited parts of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.