Security problems in Kukes

May 30, 2000 -- (RFE/RL) Albania's remote Kukes region has long been known as a center of lawlessness and became even more notorious during the 1999 conflict in nearby Kosova. It has been nearly one year since peace came to the province, but Kukes's problems remain.

In an interview with "Koha Ditore" published on 23 May, Albanian Public Order Minister Spartak Poci acknowledged that crime poses a serious threat to returning refugees on the road linking central Albania with the northern town of Kukes and subsequently with Kosova. The city and district of Kukes, which includes the main border crossing between Albania and Kosova, faced the largest influx of refugees during the 1999 war, when hundreds of thousands of people passed through that city. Since the end of the war, robberies on the roads, illegal attempts to cross the border between Albania and Kosova, and smuggling of illicit goods have been frequent.

Poci explained that the rise in crime is not simply the fault of law enforcement agencies. Rather, he said, it reflects a broader phenomenon triggered by the war: "Kukes was a burden that the police could not cope with. [The town] bore the brunt of the entire humanitarian crisis in Kosova, with all its effects, and witnessed the complete destruction of the regular police service. Thus it was clear that the Albanian state--and not only the police--needed time to bring the entire [security] infrastructure along the border back into service. But this work is proceeding quickly. Of course we have used the opportunity to carry out changes and reorganizations within the local police department and prefecture. It is important to note that we can already see results."

Still, many refugees who return voluntarily to Kosova from western countries are afraid to use the Kukes route. At present, the main concern of the Albanian authorities is to safeguard this summer's expected transit of thousands of voluntary returnees from Germany and Switzerland through Albania into Kosova. Poci stressed that Albania will not allow the transit of refugees whom the host countries have expelled by force. He added:

"We have prepared a plan according to which we will organize [the refugees'] return. The refugees will travel only during specified hours, which means in the daytime. Regardless of whether the people travel in groups or individually, we will give assistance. The Kosovars will always be accompanied by Albanian police. In keeping with an agreement we have with the German and Swiss governments, those countries will cover the necessary logistical expenses of this operation. The agreement has not been ratified, but we expect that it will be in the near future. We will not allow the transit of the Kosovar refugees through Albania to begin before all the preconditions have been met."

Poci also predicted that the overall security situation in the Kukes area will improve in the coming months. He said that KFOR and UNMIK officials have recently stepped up cooperation with the Albanian authorities in patrolling the border. He also shed light on problems within the Albanian security forces: "This is not an easy task, for several reasons. In the first place it is necessary to rid the police of criminals and of those police officers who cooperate with smugglers. This also applies to other institutions such as the customs and customs police."

A joint project drawn up by KFOR and the Albanian government on guarding the Kosova-Albanian border was presented to the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe at the beginning of this year. EU and U.S. border experts launched the project in cooperation with local officials one month ago. A third roundtable on security will take place at the beginning of June, and Poci expects that at this point donor countries will authorize financial support for the Albanian authorities for specific tasks.

These measures aim primarily at eliminating smuggling and preventing the emergence of a new contraband corridor from Eastern Europe through Kosova and Albania into Western Europe. The Albanian authorities have accordingly developed a permanent exchange of information and direct cooperation with KFOR and the UNMIK police. At this point delegations of the respective authorities maintain these contacts through visits rather than via permanent liaison offices.

But that cooperation has already resulted in several cases of the mutual extradition of criminals. Poci stressed: "We are concerned that organized crime does not spread throughout Kosova in the absence of authority and a [capable] police force. Our common struggle aims at creating permanent institutions of cooperation to prevent the emergence of organized crime."

Original article