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WED, 03 OCT 2001 00:45:07 GMT

Bin Laden Giving Albania A Headache

AIM Tirana, September 26, 2001

One voice in which the Albanian Government and the opposition, parties of the Left and Right alike, condemned the terrorist acts of September 11 against the USA has turned into a jangle of voices much faster than it was expected in a state in which the entire political spectrum is officially the American ally. The shadow of the main suspect for these attacks, Osama Bin Laden, fell on the Albanian politics also bringing back to the surface old tensions within that politics and causing new problems.

After the tragic events in the USA, one of the first political consequences here was the estrangement of relations with some countries of the region, which in their reactions to the events in America did not shrink from implicating Albania in connection with the name of the infamous Saudi terrorist. The first to accuse Albania for harbouring the main terrorist Bin Laden was the Macedonian Prime Minister, Ljupco Georgijevski, who, on September 19, during his visit to Bulgaria chose the Bulgarian capital to state that Bin Laden had been in Albania last year. The statement of the President of Macedonian Government marked the climax of the daily campaign in the Macedonian media, which was launched on the first day after the attack in the USA with the purpose of proving that Albania and the Albanians were linked with terrorist Bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalists.

Tirana, which did not react to the allegations of the Macedonian media, could not hold the same peace when such accusations came from the Prime Minister, whom Ilir Meta's Government twice helped overcome a crisis. Informed sources in the Albanian Foreign Ministry confirmed for AIM that on September 19 the Albanian Foreign Minister called the Macedonian Ambassador to Tirana so as to express his protest for accusations levelled by the Macedonian Prime Minister. The fact that the Macedonian Ambassador has not been called once to the Albanian Foreign Ministry during eight months of conflicts in Macedonia, when members of the Macedonian Cabinet constantly made accused Tirana of being involved in the conflict by extending assistance to the NLA units, but was summoned on account of Macedonian claims that Albanian maintained connections with Bin Laden, shows that the Albanian officials are very touchy when it comes to an issue that could bring their loyalty to the USA and NATO into question.

Bin Laden has also caused the estrangement of the recently re-established diplomatic relations between Albania and FR Yugoslavia. On September 17, the Yugoslav Minister of the Interior, Dusan Mihajlovic said that Bin Laden had been and had posts in Albania. It seems that Tirana's displeasure with the Yugoslav accusations prompted the Yugoslav Minister of Defence, S.Krapovic, to deny during his visit to London of September 20 that Yugoslavia had any information that Bin Laden had visited Albania.

However, it can be said that the Albanian-Bulgarian relations also became strained as the Bulgarian press started a campaign by publishing daily news and stories about Bin Laden's connections with Tirana. Bearing in mind the fact that from the very outset of the Macedonian crisis the Bulgarian media were gradually behaving less friendly towards Albania, it is to be expected that Sofia's claims on Bin Laden's connections with Albania will have its consequences on the relations of these two countries which have seen better days.

Another political consequence of terrorist attacks in the USA was the heightening of the already existing tension between the left Government coalition led by the Socialist Party and former Prime Minister Fatos Nano, on the one side, and right opposition coalition under the leadership of the Democratic Party and former President Sali Berisha, on the other.

As if the fact that the authorities and the opposition held two separate memorial services for victims of terrorism in New York was not embarrassing enough, they had to accuse each other of being connected with Bin Laden's terrorists. On September 14 "Zeri i Popullit" the Socialist Party's paper accused the Democratic Party and former President Berisha that while they had been in power they had maintained connections with and supported Bin Laden's terrorist branches. They even claimed that Bin Laden was closely connected with the former chief of Albanian Secret Service, B.Gazideda who was granted political asylum by an Arab state. On September 20, however, the former Prime Minister of the Government of the Democratic Party, Aleksandar Meksi denied that Bin Laden had visited Albania during his rule.

Equally harsh was the organ of the Democratic Party - "Rilindja Demokratike", which on September 14 accused the Right Government coalition of turning Albanian into a shelter for international terrorism. Although the two sides accused each other for different ideological motives, the fact is that, intentionally or unintentionally, they somehow played into the hands of those who claimed that Bin Laden had been in Albania and used to have and still has his posts there.

This assumed such proportions that Foreign Minister Ilir Djoni considered it necessary to hold a special press conference on September 19 in order to officially state that Bin Laden had never been in Albania nor had any bases there. The Minister mentioned with pride that Albania was a country in which Islamic fundamentalists were under attack, referring to 1997 and 1998 when the Albanian police in cooperation with the CIA and FBI had arrested ten suspicious Arabian nationals and killed one of them during the raid.

Actually, the discussion about Islamic terrorism is nothing new in political debates between the authorities and the opposition in Albania, but the events in New York have brought Bin Laden back to the focus of international attention and heated the debate in Albania. The headache Bin Laden's shadow has caused Tirana is also a consequence of the still unclear position of the Albanian politics, both those on the Right and the Left. It is hard to believe that, irrespective of the fact that the majority of the population is of Islamic religion, fundamentalism could take hold in Albania - a former communist state in which religion was suppressed for 50 years and punishable by prison, a state which was for 30 years the only officially proclaimed atheist state in the world. And the political parties used the card of Islamic threat more as a pretext to attack each other, than because they really cared about some dangerous internal development.

A new wave of attempts within the region to create the impression that Albania was maintaining links with Bin Laden are explained here with objectives of some Balkan circles, especially in states which have Albanian population, to discredit the demands of that population for greater rights. And that stories about connection with or the shadow of Bin Laden in Albania have not found fertile ground in the West, was also proven by reassurances of the American Ambassador to Tirana, Joseph Limpreht. Precisely on September 14, when Albania declared a national day of mourning because of the victims of terrorism in America, the Ambassador stated that Albania was a safe country and that there was no terrorist threat there so that the American Government encouraged the Americans to go to Albania. And since such reassurances were coming from the representative of a state which suffered a terrorist tragedy, this statement was more than just a tranquilliser at these hard times, caused by the shadow of Osama Bin Laden.

AIM Tirana

Arjan LEKA