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Albania: Police Kick Off Antitrafficking Operation With Help From Greece, Italy

Albanian police this weekend moved into the second phase of a large-scale operation aimed at halting human trafficking from Albania to Italy. The high-profile operation -- overseen by the prime minister's office and involving a number of government ministries and law-enforcement branches -- is considered a crucial step toward Albania's goal of Western integration.

Tirana/Vlora, 26 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The largest antitrafficking operation ever held in Albania grew even bigger this weekend (24 August), with law-enforcement officials expanding efforts from the port city of Vlora to the entire Albanian coastline.

The operation, which began earlier this month, was drafted by the police force in Vlora -- the city considered the hub of all Albanian trafficking routes. The operation has found robust support among the government as well as from Italy and Greece, the usual target destinations for Albanian traffickers.

Public Order Minister Luan Rama, announcing the launch of the operation in Vlora, said the operation's success is crucial for the image of Albania -- one of Europe's poorest countries and a key link in regional trafficking rings.

Rama said law-enforcement bodies at every level -- including the Prosecutor-General's Office, the secret service, and the tax police -- were committed to seeing the antitrafficking operation work. "It is important to stress that the structures [of the Ministry of Public Order] are committed to going all the way in order to win the battle against crime, against trafficking and its perpetrators."

The target in the coastal operation are the speedboat operators who ferry human traffic -- mainly women and children -- from Vlora and other Albanian ports to Italy, Greece, and beyond for work in the sex trade or as unpaid labor.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Fatos Nano, whose office is overseeing the operation along with a number of top government ministries, said that in the first three days of the operation, police detained three speedboats and at least 18 criminal traffickers. Eight illegal petrol stations were also closed after the tax police charged them with fueling dozens of speedboats crossing from Albania to Italy. Two boat-repair centers were also closed and their owners arrested.

Nano spokesman Dalipi said the operation would expand with military help from not only Albania but Italy and Greece as well. "I want to inform you that tomorrow (21 August), [troops from] the Special Battalion of the Defense Ministry will intervene, along with the commitment of Italian and Greek troops, which have supplied the operation with two helicopters."

Despite the manpower, a number of speedboats suspected of being used for human trafficking have yet to be seized in the operation. According to press reports, some traffickers may have been tipped off and were able to move their boats to Greece's Faos Islands before the operation began.

Public Order Minister Rama says several Albanian law-enforcement officials -- including the intelligence chief in Vlora and the general director of police, Bilbil Mema -- have been suspended, apparently for their connection to information leaks that allowed the speedboat operators to relocate ahead of the operation.

Some members of the Albanian opposition say the antitrafficking operation is little more than a propaganda effort on the part of the government. But others argue that the operation represents a step in the right direction.

Gazmend Noga is an antitrafficking expert trained in Italy. He said: "I would stress that trafficking is fought not simply at sea. Trafficking links can be beaten on shore as well. But first a special plan should be designed in order to involve all Balkan countries -- not only Albania -- in the fight against trafficking. We need well-defined goals and [a breakdown] of institutional responsibilities, in order to fight trafficking from the starting point to the end."

Noga says Albania is just a link in a region-wide trafficking chain encompassing all the Balkan countries and urges other countries to undertake initiatives similar to Albania's. Police authorities in Albania have also accused Greece of supporting the trafficking of Kurds, although they say the trade appears to have declined over the past several months.

Speedboats are responsible not only for human trafficking but for narcotics and cigarette smuggling conducted in cooperation with the Italian Mafia. A number of speedboats have been sunk by Italian marine ships, which patrol the Albanian coast together with Albanian border police in a joint antitrafficking operation that has come under heavy criticism. Dozens of trafficking victims have been killed in such incidents.

All the same, Albania hopes this most recent operation will pave the way for greater integration with the West. Albania must demonstrate progress in its antitrafficking efforts in order to open negotiations for a Stabilization Association agreement with the European Union.

The United States State Department, in its latest report on global trafficking, recently promoted Albania from a Tier 3 to a Tier 2 country -- meaning it has shown significant progress in trying to comply with international standards. But all the same, the U.S. has threatened that the country will face sanctions if trafficking persists at its current levels.

Albanian police say that, prior to the latest operation, about 10 speedboats carrying trafficked persons departed from Vlora Bay and other coastal points each night. The number of trafficked people during the summer is believed to be between 2,500-3,000 a month. Many are Kurds and enter Albania from Greece.

According to the U.S., over the past year at least 700,000 men, women, and children worldwide were bought, sold, or otherwise held against their will in slave-like conditions.