Prague, 15 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The first wave of the multinational force set up to safeguard humanitarian aid deliveries in Albania began arriving today in a country markedly calmer than it was last month when the mission had been conceived.
Nearly 1,200 Italian, French and Spanish troops are expected to arrive by boat and air in Albania by the end of the day. They will prepare entry points for the arrival of the rest of the total force of 6,000 troops from eight European nations in the days ahead.
A French troop ship brought more than 100 vehicles, six tanks, and two helicopters to the main Albanian port of Durres this morning. The heavy weapons are part of the force's mandate to use firepower if necessary to protect humanitarian aid convoys from bandits.
Admiral Guido Venturoni, Italy's defense chief of staff and overall commander of the mission, said in Rome yesterday that "force will be used only when it is indispensable." But he said that soldiers will both have the right to defend themselves and "to protect people from serious criminal acts."
As the first troops landed today, there were many signs that the worst of the violence which wracked Albania during recent months has subsided. The Albanian government has restored a semblance of order in the capital Tirana with a strictly enforced curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., though nights continue to be punctuated by gunfire.
In the rebel-held southern port city of Vlore conditions were calm enough for a visit by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi Sunday. Prodi told reporters in Vlore that the multinational force hoped to leave Albania one month after the country's early elections due in June. It was in Vlore that the armed rioting began in February following the collapse of fraudulent savings schemes. The unrest eventually swept over much of the country.
Despite the relative calm, no one is saying that the multinational force is less needed than before. Many analysts credit the mere knowledge that the force and humanitarian aid were coming as helping to check Albania's weeks-long slide into anarchy. Since the outbreak of violence and the looting of government weapons depots two months ago, more than 300 people have died in shootings, and another 700 have been wounded.
But as the troops arrive to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian food aid, disagreements among experts continue as to what kind of emergency needs exist in Albania. Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross have said that only some ten percent of the population of 3.4 million needs aid. Correspondents say there is no reported famine or severe hunger and the recent violence is believed to have displaced less than 5,000 people.
The first major shipment of food aid is due to arrive in the country toward the end of the week. The U.N. World Food Program is sending a freighter carrying 360 tons of wheat flour and 36 tons of beans to be unloaded at the port of Durres. Unloading of the ship will have to wait until the international force finishes disembarking due to the port's limited cargo-handling facilities. Experts say the current food aid will bridge Albania's most pressing needs until the July grain harvest.
The U.N. backed multinational force, dubbed "Alba" (dawn) by its Italian leaders, includes units from Italy, France, Spain, Greece. Turkey, Denmark, Austria, and Romania.