The September 11 attacks in the United States have raised questions about the presence of suspected terrorists linked to Osama Bin Laden in several parts of the Balkans, including Bosnia and Albania. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele, reporting from Tirana, spoke with Albania's new foreign minister and the country's state police chief about the security situation and sends this report.
Tirana, 23 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Albania's newly appointed foreign minister, Arta Dade, says her government has guaranteed it support to the United States in its efforts to fight global terrorism.
Dade described the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as "a monstrous assault" directed not against the United States but against "all values of humanity."
But Dade, in an interview with RFE/RL yesterday (Friday), rejected suggestions made in the foreign news media that Albania has served as a haven for people connected with extremist Osama Bin Laden, whom the U.S. considers the prime suspect behind last week's attacks. Dade:
"As concerns rumors and talk that Albania might have had some links with some dubious people who were deemed to be linked to some terrorist circles, of course, we throw this down and reject it totally because Albania should not be linked with some other countries which might have links with such terrorism."
At least two-thirds of Albania's population of slightly more than three million is nominally Muslim in what was from 1967 until 1990 the world's first atheist state. The country's first post-Communist president, Sali Berisha, established links with a variety of Muslim organizations in the mid-1990s as part of a bid to open up the previously isolated country.
Foreign Minister Dade says some people with terrorist links were living in Albania prior to her Socialist Party's return to power in 1997. However, she says that the Albanian government -- in cooperation with the intelligence services of the U.S., Italy and other European countries -- subsequently expelled these people from Albania. Dade insists that Albania is now -- in her words -- "a safe place with full security."
In fact, Albania deported two suspected terrorists to Egypt in 1998 where they had already been tried in absentia. They were executed after their return. A third Egyptian suspect was killed in a shoot-out with police in Albania. A fourth, a Saudi pediatrician and director of an Islamic foundation in Albania, had Albanian citizenship and was deported to Turkey, where he was released.
The U.S. ambassador to Albania, Joseph Limprecht, told reporters in Tirana (Sept. 21) that in the mid-1990s some terrorists found shelter in Albania because of links they had with the Albanian government at the time or due to inadequate controls by state police structures.
Limprecht says that, at the time, Washington was concerned that some of these people had been granted Albanian citizenship. The ambassador says that, while it is not U.S. policy to comment on intelligence operations, he can say now that no terrorist cells or individuals have been identified or located in Albania.
Limprecht rejects an allegation made by a deputy director of Interpol in a report to the U.S. Congress last year that said there is evidence that bin Laden himself passed through Albania in 1999. Limprecht says the embassy has found no evidence to confirm this.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Dade indicates she has received assurances from U.S. officials of continuity in U.S. policy in the Balkans despite the recent attacks.
"I'm very happy that the United States' presence and the United States' policies toward the [Balkan] region will not change in the framework of the recent developments and the terrorist assault in New York [and Washington]. But they have confirmed the continuation of their policies toward the region, and this is very helpful for peace and stability in the region."
Dade suggests that a resurgence of fighting in neighboring Macedonia between government forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents could result in the deterioration of the stabilization process and of the fight against terrorism. Similarly, she warns that moves by the Macedonian government to hold a referendum on the peace plan would set the whole process back. Dade says Albania would not support such a process.
Albania is one of nine countries that has applied to join NATO in a second wave of eastward enlargement and has beefed up its security following the September 11 attacks. Dade says:
"We have put our airports and other places at the disposal of NATO, but even in the cases of the fight against terrorism, [the] Albanian government will offer all the facilities to NATO troops because we consider ourselves politically part of NATO."
The chief of Albania's police force is Colonel Bilbil Mema. He also commented on current anti-terrorism efforts in Albania:
"Since the attacks in America, the terrorist acts in New York and Washington, the entire Albanian police force is now engaged and strongly organizing operations to control and verify any possibility of activities by any Islamic terrorists but also non-Islamic terrorists on the territory of Albania."
Mema says anti-terrorist checks are ongoing. He says police are establishing files on every foreigner living in Albania and background checks are being made. In addition, he says, immigration and baggage controls have been considerably improved at Tirana's international airport and at border crossings and ports:
"The result of the operations to date in the Albanian state show that no Islamic element or terrorist activity exists at present anywhere on Albanian territory. And we'll continue to control, search and verify any sign or evidence given to us by police departments abroad, with which we are cooperating through Interpol's office here in our ministry and our agreements with other police forces."
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, also has an office down the corridor from Mema's. Albanian and U.S. investigators are trying to determine whether anyone connected to the September 11 attacks had an Albanian connection.
"Now, after the latest terrorist acts in America, our cooperation [with the FBI] has become far closer. We are trying to verify information concerning several persons who might have come to or passed through Albania with connections to Islamic terrorist elements."
Albania's police chief says many North Africans, particularly Egyptian citizens, are living in Albania, as well as a small number of people from the Middle East. The Arabs in Albania are largely involved in Islamic religious activities, as well as the operation of various foundations, educational exchange programs, and construction and trading companies.
Mema insists that no links have been found between these foreign Muslim residents and terrorist organizations. But Albania's top cop adds, "Terrorism can suddenly emerge seemingly out of nowhere."