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Albania’s neighbors fear guns could trigger wider conflict

March 15, 1997

SARANDA, Albania (AP) _ A small convoy of luxury cars without license plates pulls up at a dusty cafe in this port town, and men in black leather jackets emerge.

Armed insurgents inside the cafe know what the men want: guns.

``They offer us about $300 for a Kalashnikov and between $50 and $100 for Chinese pistols,″ said Seit Tsipa, 21, an Albanian army defector.

Locals say some of the men speak Italian, while others have the distinct accent of the ethnic Albanian majority in Serbia’s province of Kosovo, which borders Albania.

The men have come to this port opposite the Greek island of Corfu to shop among the heaps of weapons and ammunition that have been looted from army warehouses as Albania has succumbed to anarchy in the past few weeks.

The arsenal in the hands of Albania’s lawless insurgents causes panic in the tiny country’s neighbors. Yugoslavia and Macedonia are worried that weapons could reach their restive Albanian populations, fueling an armed uprising. The Albanians there almost equal the 3.2 million in Albania proper.

Greece, a NATO member, worries about being drawn into wider Balkan war. Greek and Italian officials also fear that guns could reach organized crime.

Yugoslavia’s Supreme Defense Council has closed the country’s border with Albania, letting only foreigners through. Macedonia, where tensions between the Slav majority and ethnic Albanians reached the boiling point in recent weeks, also sealed its border.

``My real concern is Kosovo,″ said Paul Beaver, an analyst with Jane’s Information Group in London. ``The border is well controlled by the Yugoslav side. But at night, pack horses can get across.″

Greek border police have beefed up patrols with sniffer dogs and helicopters with infrared cameras. But that may not be enough.

``There are amazing links between the Albanian underworld and the same in Italy,″ Beaver warned.

Residents of Saranda said a first shipment of smuggled weapons was delivered Thursday near the town of Kassiopi, on the Greek island of Corfu. Other drop-off points include the tiny islands of Fillimadhe and Fillivogint, near Corfu.

Albanians themselves also are at risk.

Most of the bigger depots in the country were in the south, which has become an armed camp. Men, women and children tote assault rifles and heavy machine guns.

``Every household in southern Albania has at least 10 guns stashed at home, apart from hand grenades and such,″ Tsipa said.

Armed bandits have used looted weapons to rob stores, banks and people on the street, sometimes gunning down victims who refuse to surrender their money.

In the town of Gjirokastra, where insurgents looted more than 500 tons of weapons from arms warehouses, men used a stolen armored personnel carrier to break into a bank.

``They walked away with the bank’s vault that held 80 million lek (about $5.7 million),″ said George Batsis, a witness.

Greek television reports said they then used the vehicle to try and steal humanitarian aid. One man guarding the flour was killed in the ensuing firefight.

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