Tirana imprisons five ethnic Greek activists

AN ALBANIAN court jailed five political activists from Albania's ethnic Greek minority for espionage yesterday after a trial that injected serious tensions into relations between the two Balkan countries. Sentencing them to terms of between six and eight years, the presiding judge, Martin Deda, said there was clear evidence that they had collaborated with Greece's secret services.

Since the trial opened in Tirana on 15 August, scarcely a day has passed without the Greek and Albanian authorities exchanging accusations and threats. Only hours before the verdicts were pronounced, the Defence Ministry in Athens said it was sending extra troops to Greece's northern border with Albania, ostensibly to clamp down on Albanians trying to enter Greece illegally. And afterwards Athens recalled its ambassador from Tirana.

Greece has expelled more than 25,000 Albanians from its territory since mid-August and has also blocked pounds 18m of European Union aid for Albania. For its part, Albania recalled its ambassador from Greece on 22 August after a Greek plane flew into Albanian airspace and dropped leaflets calling for the overthrow of the Albanian government.

The five Greeks are members of Omonia, a movement representing Albania's Greek minority. Albania suspects Omonia of fomenting secessionist aspirations in a Greek-inhabited region of southern Albania, while Greece accuse Albania of discriminating against the minority.

The five were arrested after an incident last April in which unidentified gunmen shot dead two Albanian border guards near the Greek frontier. During the trial, four of the five accused retracted confessions made to the Albanian police, saying they had been extracted under torture.

The judge rejected their allegations and said the five had received 30m drachmas (pounds 80,000) from the Greek government to buy arms and organise the secession of southern Albania.