Italian navy accused of murder

Adriatic tragedy overshadows multinational operation in Albania, writes Andrew Gumbel in Rome

Italy's armed forces faced mounting allegations yesterday that they were responsible for a major disaster in the Adriatic, following the sinking of a boat full of Albanians which collided with an Italian navy corvette on Friday night.

While the official death toll was just four, and navy officers denied reports that scores more bodies were trapped in the hull of the sunken boat, Pandeli Pasko, Albania's ambassador to Italy, sent a fax to magistrates in Brindisi alleging that, in fact, 79 people lost their lives in the disaster.

Mr Pasko's figure was based on interviews with 34 survivors, and, although higher than some of the estimates made by survivors over the weekend,was the latest, and most authoritative, evidence that something truly sinister had taken place in the storm-tossed waters of the Adriatic.

The Albanian boat, an old Russian-built patrol vessel, was carrying scores of Albanians seeking to reach Italy in defiance of a naval blockade set up in the last few days. It seems the boat attempted to weave its way around the Italian corvettes, but ended up colliding with one of them, the Sibilla, and sinking.

According to some of the survivors, the Italian ship deliberately chose not to prevent the collision and may even have rammed the Albanians deliberately. The Italians, meanwhile, insist that the collision was unavoidable and the result of a suicidal swerve by the seemingly inexperienced Albanian captain.

Two separate investigations into the incident have already been opened, one by civilian magistrates in Brindisi and the other an internal navy enquiry. The captain of the Sibilla is under formal investigation for culpable homicide.

The stage seems set for a classic Italian mystery, with everyone involved behaving suspiciously. While the Albanians are almost certainly exaggerating the number of casualties, the Italian navy Chief of Staff, Angelo Mariani, has looked thoroughly unconvincing in his lack of concern about the possibility of dozens of bodies on the sea bed.

The full truth of the matter will probably never be known, but in the meantime, the incident is turning into the worst possible prelude to the Italian-led military force due to go into Albania to try to restore order in the next couple of weeks.

The force, which will number 2,500 initially, was given the blessing of the United Nations Security Council early on Saturday morning. Its mandate, rather like that of the UN mission in Bosnia, will be to protect aid convoys coming into the country and secure certain key sites such as the airport.

The good news about the force is that the international community has finally decided to do something to stop Albania collapsing altogether. The bad news is that the diplomatic efforts have been confused, slow and almost farcical in their bureaucratic entanglement.

Some diplomats have been nursing the hope that Albania will provide Europe with a chance to shine in foreign policy, and put the mistakes of Bosnia behind it. But all the signs are that the same mistakes are being made all over again.

Italy, the country most directly involved in Albania, has been lobbying for an international force for the past fortnight. At various meetings of European Union foreign ministers, the idea was vetoed first by the Germans, then by the British. Finally it became clear that no concerted action would materialise, so the Italians decided to set up their own mission with the help of the French, the Greeks, the Turks and a handful of other countries.

The next difficulty was establishing a mandate. Ideally, an international force would not only secure supply lines, but also help round-up weapons looted from army and police depots in the past two months and organise parliamentary elections.

So diluted has the diplomatic process become, though, that the troops are unlikely to have any powers to disarm civilians and risk becoming bogged down as the UN force was in Bosnia.

The Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, meanwhile, is still trying to establish the ground rules for its own possible intervention in the run-up to elections that have been promised by June.

Its deliberations have been held up by bureaucratic wrangles about authorisation and the roles of the UN, the EU and OSCE itself. The nature of the task ahead has been rather low on the agenda.

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