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
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The Independent Online
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.