Italy ready for mission impossible

Intervention in Albania could bring instability to Rome, writes Andrew Gumbel
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There could not have been a more eloquent demonstration of why Albania so desperately needs outside help to recover from its state of social and political meltdown. At 10.30 on Saturday morning the Prime Minister, Bashkim Fino, was on his way to the northern city of Shkoder with three other government ministers when he was ambushed by armed bandits.

A vicious exchange of fire followed in which, miraculously, nobody was hurt. But the trip to Shkoder had to be called off, and the bitter conclusion drawn that even the top representatives of a government of national unity, supposedly supported by everyone, are not free to move around the country at will. The fact that the gunmen were reported to have acted on behalf of President Sali Berisha, the man who appointed Mr Fino under considerable duress three weeks ago, only added to the sense of a country in the grip of festering chaos.

Outside help is now just around the corner, in the form of an Italian- led intervention force due to go into Albania in the coming week. Between 5,000 and 6,000 men - from Spain, Greece, Turkey, France, Romania and Turkey as well as from Italy - are expected to take up strategic positions from Shkoder in the north to Gjirokaster in the south and, in concert with the Fino government, get the country in a fit state to hold free and fair parliamentary elections that have been called for June.

Operation Alba, as it was christened by military leaders in Rome this weekend (alba being the Italian word for dawn as well as the first four letters of the country in question), will be a strange beast. Never, in the post-Cold War world, has an operation of this kind been conducted by individual countries acting outside the umbrella of an organisation such as the United Nations or Nato. Never have European countries gone it alone in this way without the active participation of the Americans. And never has an international force tied its fortunes so closely to the government of the country it is trying to help.

To the more cautious players in the international community, these are all reasons to stay well away. Britain and Germany quickly vetoed both their own participation and that of the European Union as a whole. Nato, the UN and the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe did not want to touch Albania until they were satisfied that one country - Italy - was bearing full responsibility for the enterprise.

Even the Albanians have had their moments of doubt. "When are the Americans coming?" they ask. In truth, the Americans are much more involved than they look, reasoning that the Italians are better placed, logistically and politically, to take on the task, and offering full support from the sidelines. Washington is also likely to provide satellite pictures and Awacs aircraft to boost the operation's intelligence-gathering arm.

As for the operation itself, it has overcome diplomatic wrangling to establish a reasonable list of aims. "Essentially, two objectives have been finalised, the distribution of humanitarian aid, ... and assistance to the Albanian government to regain control of flashpoints on its territory and to get state institutions working again," Italy's deputy foreign minister, Piero Fassino, said in an interview.

Mr Fassino sees Operation Alba and the Fino government each helping to strengthen and ensure the success of the other. For now, the international force will concentrate mainly on protecting ports, roads and the main Tirana airport to ensure the safe arrival of essential food and medical supplies. But as time goes on and confidence increases, they could be involved in anything from buying or bartering weapons back from rebels, to supervision of polling stations on election day.

Of course, the danger of tying the fortunes of the operation to a fragile national unity government is that it can all quickly end in tears. Already, the Albanian Socialist Party has threatened to pull its members, including Mr Fino, out of the government as a means of pressuring President Berisha to resign. The Italians, in response, have made clear to the Socialist Party's leader, Fatos Nano, that without a Fino government there will be no Operation Alba.

Albania is not the only country with problems of political fragility. In Italy, the spectre of a government crisis is looming because of the refusal of one party in the ruling parliamentary majority to endorse the Albanian mission. The obstructive tactics of Rifondazione Comunista, a hard-left party outside the government but whose votes are crucial to its survival, are unlikely to block Alba altogether but could severely weaken its authority.

Rifondazione argues that the intervention will only prop up the man who in their view bears most responsibility for the crisis, President Berisha. The argument is not without merit. By sticking to a policy of political objectivity, Alba risks being unable to condemn and stop unacceptable behaviour out of fear of being seen to be taking sides.

But the mission is hardly indulgent towards President Berisha, who has largely been kept out of the diplomatic loop. Mr Fino is the international community's point of contact, and Mr Fino's government the institution it is working to support. The Rome government's private calculation is that the President will become more and more irrelevant, to the point where he will quietly disappear after the election.

Given Mr Berisha's past behaviour, that may be an optimistic outlook.