Prospect of a giant arms bazaar causes neighbours to panic

A mass exodus of refugees is only one of the region's problems, writes Andrew Gumbel

With Albania in turmoil and much of the country under the control of armed gangs, a small flotilla of creaky old boats bearing refugees arrived on the south-east coast of Italy yesterday. Immediately, a shiver of panic gripped the country, with the media speculating about a repeat of 1990-91, when tens of thousands of Albanians fled across the Adriatic. Is another mass exodus in the offing?

In fact, a mass exodus may be the least of the international community's problems. Albanians have learned enough about the outside world to realise they will never rise above the drudgery of manual labour if they opt to flee. They are more likely, according to crime experts, to stay at home and set up an enormous arms bazaar, making money by exporting organised crime into Western Europe and beyond.

"We're going to see a lot of armed robberies involving Kalashnikovs in Thessaloniki and Athens," commented Nikos Sourelis, a businessman in the Greek border town of Ioannina, who knows Albania well.

Rebel commanders estimate that in the southern town of Saranda alone there are 5,000-6,000 automatic weapons in the hands of the people. Add to that the arsenals of Delvina, Himara, Gjirokaster, Tepelena, Vlora, Berat, Lushnja, Elbasan, Shkoder and the capital, Tirana, and a terrifying picture begins to emerge.

The weapons may not just be sold abroad through mafia networks. They may circulate in the Balkans to fuel other regional conflicts. In the past few days, army depots have been raided in the northern towns of Trepoja and Bajram Curri, not to arm supporters of President Sali Berisha, as some have reported, but to create an opportunity for business with ethnic Albanians across the mountains in Kosovo.

Kosovars arming themselves for a possible conflict with their Serb rulers have been buying Kalashnikovs from Albania for $700 (pounds 400) apiece, according to informed Albanian sources. "Most people have grabbed these weapons to have a concrete source of income in their hands," a Tirana resident said.

The Greek government has been most directly concerned by the smuggling threat, since its border post with Albania, at Kakavia, has become ever more lawless in the past week. First the Albanian customs police surrendered their arms and ran away. Then armed gangs moved into the area to seize cars and other goods coming in from Greece. One driver who refused to give up his car was killed on Tuesday night, prompting the Greeks to threaten to seal the border altogether.

The Greek army has set up two lines of checkpoints all the way across its border with Albania. Coming in from Kakavia, soldiers check every passing vehicle. Immigrants are not the chief concern, as British and US citizens are checked every bit as thoroughly as Albanians. Officials in Athens say there is also a third layer of security operated by undercover agents, on the look-out for potential smugglers and criminals in the main towns in the Epirus region.

Weapons are only one of many worries. "I don't think these Kalashnikovs have much mass-market appeal, at least not in Greece, since more modern, lighter weapons, like Uzis, are far more practical for bank robberies," one government official commented.

Drugs are the really big issue in Greece. Hard drugs from Turkey have been entering the country in large quantities for some time, either directly or via Macedonia, according to Western intelligence officials. Now there is a risk that marijuana grown in southern Albania may flood the Greek market too.

Albania's other key neighbour, Italy, is, if anything, more exposed to the influx of arms and drugs; its Adriatic coast is notoriously prone to smuggling activities and its mafia organisations are already well ensconced in operations with Albania. Italy receives large quantities of heroin travelling along an established drugs route from Turkey, through Bulgaria, Macedonia and northern Albania. The country has also been used, according to Italian investigators, as an entry point for arms flooding out of the Balkan region for resale in Africa and South America.

The danger is that protracted chaos in Albania will make such smuggling routes easier to operate, exposing Italy to large quantities of contraband goods and strengthening domestic organised crime networks.

Such issues have received little public airing in either Italy or Greece, with officials and the media preferring to talk about the more tangible risk of mass emigration. Many of those now escaping are members of the armed forces or of Mr Berisha's old government - people with a political, not a personal, reason to escape.

The Danish Foreign Minister, Niels Helveg Petersen, has suggested paying the insurgents to give up their weapons. Mr Helveg Petersen, the President of the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe, clearly believes it is better to invest in peace now than risk a far more costly international intervention if the situation continues to deteriorate.

Life and Style
healthMovember isn't about a moustache trend, it saves lives
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday

Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities