Kosovo exiles carry on the fight in Tirana: Albanian-language paper that was closed by Serbs finds an unlikely new home

THE HEADQUARTERS of Albania's state news agency, Ata, lies off a dusty avenue in Tirana along which second-hand Western cars speed past men with horsedrawn carts and wheelbarrows. In Albania's Stalinist days this grey, tree-shaded building used to emit streams of invective against the United States, the Soviet Union and most other countries in the world.

For the last three months, Ata's offices have played host to a different type of news operation. This is where Mehmet Gjata and a handful of fellow Albanian exiles from the Serbian province of Kosovo produce Rilindja, an Albanian-language newspaper that the Serbian authorities closed down in 1990.

Mr Gjata, the paper's editor, said yesterday that it stood for Kosovo's full independence from Serbia, followed by unification with Albania. The paper, which was the main Albanian-language publication in Kosovo before its closure, believed that independence and unification should happen peacefully, but recognised that a more militant approach might be necessary.

'The demands of Albanians for unification are natural. There is a single nation with one language, blood and culture,' he said. 'Kosovo is an older and more important problem (than Bosnia) because if a war happens there, the whole Balkan peninsula will be sucked in. We have chosen a peaceful way to promote our aims because the Western world would prefer a peaceful solution. But . . . if it doesn't work we will change tactics.'

Under President Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia has stripped Kosovo of the autonomy that Tito conferred upon the province in 1974. About 90 per cent of Kosovo's 2 million people are Albanians, with Serbs and their Montenegrin cousins making up the rest. Serbs feel a powerful emotional tie to Kosovo, since they fought a battle there against the Ottoman Turks in 1389 that has gone down in Serbian legend as a supreme national sacrifice.

It is as certain as can be that, if the Albanians of Kosovo tried to unite with Albania, Serbia would respond with violence. Other states also oppose a Greater Albania, notably Greece and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which has perhaps 400,000 Albanians in its 2 million population.

Mr Gjata said it was impossible to circulate Rilindja in Kosovo, and Macedonia's authorities sometimes interfered with the paper's distribution in their republic. The print-run is low, but he plans to increase it soon to 10,000, of which 5,000 would be sold in Albania and 5,000 in Macedonia.

Rilindja receives financial support from the Albanian emigre community in Switzerland. Journalists living in Kosovo send their stories by phone, fax or computer to Switzerland, apparently without much effort by the Serbian authorities to stop them. From Switzerland the stories are passed on to Tirana. The exiles swear they will return to Kosovo. 'None of us has left . . . We have just come to work here,' Mr Gjata said.

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