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Prodi visit calms Albanians

It was the perfect gesture of reconciliation. At eight o'clock yesterday morning a fleet of Italian military helicopters landed in the southern Albanian town of Gjirokaster and, to everyone's surprise, the portly figure of the prime minister, Romano Prodi, emerged for an unscheduled meeting with his Albanian counterpart, Bashkim Fino.

Relations between Italy and Albania have been near snapping point ever since last Friday night, when dozens of Albanian immigrants drowned in the Adriatic following a collision with an Italian navy corvette, and the impromptu bilateral summit was not without risks. As it turned out, though, it could not have run more smoothly.

Mr Prodi promised to launch a full investigation into the accident in the Adriatic and even invited the Albanians to take part in the investigating committee. Mr Fino formally repeated his government's re- quest for an Italian-led intervention force to restore order to Albania - his way of assuring the Italians that the tragedy had not caused permanent damage to relations between their countries.

A few hours later, an upbeat Mr Prodi was back in Rome briefing parliament on his visit and vowing that the so-called Multinational Protection Force, which Italy is leading and contributing to heavily, would be going into Albania as scheduled in the next week or so.

"This is not a mission without risks or technical difficulties," Mr Prodi said. "But we are not going into Albania to interfere in that country's internal affairs or get involved in promoting or protecting partisan interests. We are going to distribute aid and help the Albanians to rebuild a normal life for themselves."

Earlier this week, it looked as if the accident in the Adriatic could scupper international efforts to help Albania. Armed rebels in the port of Vlora, where the ill-fated boat set sail, accused the Italian navy of ramming the immigrants and then trying to cover up what they had done. On the Italian side, members of Mr Prodi's centre-left coalition openly accused the government of provoking the accident by cracking down on immigration through naval patrols.

In the end, the wave of emotion unleashed by the accident and the ghoulishly unapologetic public relations gloss put on it by the Italian navy seems to have given way to higher interests. Albania cannot afford to lose the help being offered by Italy and the other countries contributing to the force, while Italy cannot afford to fail in what is arguably its most ambitious foreign policy initiative since the Second World War.

The 5,000-strong force is expected to begin operations sometime towards the end of next week, with the principle tasks of safeguarding the ports of Durres and Vlora as well as Rinas airport outside Tirana. The Italians are expected to contribute up to half the men, with the French contributing another 1,000 and other contingents coming from Greece, Turkey, Spain and Romania.