Category: Rumelia Land of Albania


October 11, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Albania’s president has turned down a request from his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci to issue Albanian passports for citizens in neighboring Kosovo, the only nation in Europe excluded from a visa-free European travel zone.

Ilir Meta, who is visiting Kosovo Wednesday, said the solution was “through dialogue.” The European Union insists Kosovo must approve a border demarcation deal with Montenegro before its citizens can enjoy visa-free travel within the so-called Schengen zone.

Opposition lawmakers in Kosovo have refused to ratify that deal, saying it meant Kosovo would lose land. Albania has enjoyed access to the visa-free regime since 2010. Kosovo’s 1.9 million population is mainly ethnic Albanian.

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August 02, 2017

SARANDA, Albania (AP) — Descending beneath the waves, the cloudy first few meters quickly give way to clear waters and an astonishing sight — dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tightly packed ancient vases lie on the seabed, testament to some long-forgotten trader’s unfortunate voyage more than 1,600 years ago.

A short boat ride away, the hulking frame of an Italian World War II ship appears through the gloom, soldiers’ personal items still scattered in the interior, its encrusted railings and propeller now home to growing colonies of fish and sponges.

Off the rugged shores of Albania, one of the world’s least explored underwater coastlines, lies a wealth of treasures: ancient amphorae — long, narrow terracotta vessels — that carried olive oil and wine along trade routes between north Africa and the Roman Empire, wrecks with hidden tales of heroism and treachery from two world wars, and spectacular rock formations and marine life.

“From what I’ve seen so far, you can’t swim more than a few meters without finding something that’s amazing, whether it’s on the cultural history side or the natural history side, here in Albania,” said Derek Smith, a coastal and maritime ecologist and research associate who has been working with the non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation to explore the Albanian coastline for the past decade.

Now Albania’s National Coastline Agency is examining how best to study and protect its sunken attractions while opening them up to visitors in a nation that is virgin territory for the lucrative scuba diving industry.

“The idea of presenting the Albanian underwater heritage is a new idea for the country, because so far there is very little known about the rich history of the Albanian coastline, and in particular the shipwrecks,” said agency head Auron Tare, who has been involved for the past 12 years with RPM Nautical Foundation’s underwater research. “I believe the time has come now that we should present to the world the wealth of this heritage that we have in our waters.”

Once more isolated than even North Korea, Albania has gradually opened up to international tourism and shrugged off its former image as a hermit state that briefly turned into lawless bandit territory in the late 1990s. But coastal land development has been burgeoning in an often anarchic fashion, and there are fears the more accessible wrecks could be plundered unless adequate protections are put into place.

Legislation is expected to be passed soon to protect the country’s underwater heritage while also granting some access to visitors. Neighboring Greece, to Albania’s south, has struggled with balancing tourism with protecting its ancient artefacts. Greece was so fearful of losing its underwater antiquities it banned diving outright in all but a handful of places. Even today, diving is forbidden on any wreck — ship or plane — built more than 50 years ago, regardless of when it sank.

Albania is going for a more balanced approach. “I’d say that in the near future the ancient wrecks should be open to scholars and research,” said Tare, who noted the country has also lost some of its underwater heritage to plundering in the last 20 years. “Where(as) some of the modern wrecks which do not have much to lose in the sense of looting might be opened up to the dive industry.”

He estimated that with access to the more modern wrecks from WWI or WWII, diving could pick up in Albania in the next five years. The RPM Nautical Foundation, in cooperation with the coastal agency, has mapped out the seabed along about a third of the Albanian coastline, from Saranda near the Greek border to Vlora. Using a combination of divers and high-tech equipment including sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle, or ROV, its research vessel has discovered nearly 40 shipwrecks.

“So far RPM has documented from about 3rd and 4th century BC through to World War I and World War II contemporary shipwrecks,” said Smith. “So we’ve got quite a big range of maybe 2,500 years, 2,300 years’ worth of cultural resources here on the Albanian coastline that have really largely been unexplored.”

One of them is the tightly-packed amphora pile near the shore. Known as the Joni wreck, it was a merchant vessel estimated to have had about four crew members and a cargo of mainly of north African amphorae.

The fact that the pottery was north African “is really important because it shows the trade connections between the Adriatic and the north African coast,” said underwater archaeologist Mateusz Polakowski, who has been working with RPM.

Small fish peer out from the necks of the jugs, which the passage of time has concreted into the seabed. The site hasn’t been excavated and archaeologists believe several more layers of amphorae, as well as the wooden hull of the ship, might still lie intact beneath the seabed.

“A lot of these wrecks are very important as national heritage treasures,” said Polakowski. “Just as much as the biology of it is, just as important as the reefs and the fish populations are, I think these shipwrecks not only become artificial reefs, but they also instill a sense of cultural identity, cultural heritage.”

Albania sits at a strategic point at the entrance of the Adriatic Sea and along ancient trade routes from Italy to the Balkan peninsula, Polakowski said. Much more remains to be explored. “They have about 200 miles of coastline here,” said Smith, the maritime ecologist. “Even though we feel like we’ve covered a tremendous amount of it … there’s always more to be discovered.”

June 27, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s left-wing Socialist Party has secured a second mandate in a general election, winning a majority of seats in parliament, nearly complete results showed Tuesday. The election is seen as a key benchmark to the country’s bid to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.

The Central Election Commission said that with more than 95 percent of the ballots counted, the governing Socialists of Prime Minister Edi Rama had won about 48 percent of the votes, or 74 places in the 140-seat parliament.

The previous government was a coalition of the Socialists and the Socialist Movement for Integration, or LSI, often creating problems for Rama. The opposition Democratic party of Lulzim Basha won 29 percent, or 43 seats. The LSI is third with 19 seats.

Turnout in Sunday’s election fell to 46.6 percent, 7 points lower than in 2013. International observers who monitored the polling hailed the generally calm campaign and voting, but also noted the continued political fight that has negative impacts on the country’s democracy.

The U.S. embassy in Tirana said that the incidents “were not so widespread as to change the overall outcome of the elections.” Federica Mogherini, EU’s foreign policy chief, and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn urged the new Cabinet to continue the reform process.

“The continuation of the justice reform and the fight against drug trafficking and cultivation will be of particular importance in this respect,” their statement said. The governing Socialists had agreed in May to give the opposition Democrats a greater role in oversight on election transparency.

The two parties also pledged to work together toward eventually joining the European Union. Rama had pledged that his new cabinet would work hard on a reform agenda to root out corruption and fight drug trafficking, achieve faster economic growth, improve pay and lower unemployment.

The nation of 2.9 million, a NATO member since 2009, received EU candidate status in 2014.

June 26, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Preliminary results show that Albania’s left-wing Socialist Party appeared headed for a new governing mandate in crucial elections in the country’s bid to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.

The Central Election Commission’s preliminary results after counting one-third of the votes Monday morning show the Socialist party of Prime Minister Edi Rama winning almost half the votes compared to 28 percent of the opposition Democratic party of Lulzim Basha.

Election authorities said the partial count pointed to the Socialists winning at least 75 seats in the 140-member parliament. Turnout fell to 47 percent, or 6 points lower than in previous polls in 2013.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member and that earned EU candidate status in 2014. Rama wrote on Monday in his Facebook page wishing Albanians “a beautiful day with this still-unfinished masterpiece of this country’s common people,” referring to the expected significant difference in winning results.

Basha spoke to reporters late Sunday evening thanking Albanians for voting “with a European dignity” in a religious day and under extreme hot temperature. The voting was extended by one hour due to low turnout that was attributed to religious festivities and temperatures that reached 39 degrees (102 Fahrenheit.)

Albania with a two-third Muslim majority celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. International observers are expected to hold a news conference with a preliminary statement in the afternoon.

June 25, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians voted in what was expected to be low numbers Sunday in a general election that was aimed at giving the country’s two biggest political parties a chance to look past their bitter differences and work toward eventually joining the European Union.

The voting ended at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) after the Central Election Commission decided to extend voting by one hour due to low turnout that was attributed to religious festivities and hot temperatures that reached 39 degrees (102 Fahrenheit.)

The decision caused chaos in some places as more people waited in line to cast ballots. When the polls closed, the preliminary turnout from the 19 percent of stations reporting participation figures was 43.9 percent, compared to 53.5 percent four years ago. Preliminary election results are not expected until Monday.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member. After earning EU candidate status in 2014, Tirana has struggled to pass important reforms vital for its bid to advance to EU — namely deeply reforming its corrupted justice system.

Eighteen political parties are running for 140 seats in parliament in Sunday’s vote. The main contenders are Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha.

An agreement reached in May ended the three-month parliamentary boycott by the Democrats, who claimed that voting was open to manipulation. The election date was delayed a week and Rama’s Socialists promised greater oversight on election transparency.

All main parties campaigned on a reform agenda, pledging faster economic growth, pay hikes and lower unemployment, which stands at about 14 percent. Some 6,000 police officers were on duty for election security, while more 300 international observers came to monitor the vote.

“We expect a better Albania and leaders to work to do what they have pledged at the campaign,” Zenel Caka, 47, said at a polling station in Tirana. Luan Rama of the Socialist Party for Motivation, the third main political party, said one member was injured following a quarrel and a shooting incident outside a polling station in Shengjin, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana.

Police investigating the incident said they found a cartridge but no injured person was taken to the hospital. They said it did not disrupt the voting. The Interior Ministry also reported hundreds of attempts to buy votes, a crime that may result in a jail term.

Central Election Commission said partial turnout at a quarter of polling stations by 10 a.m. was 12.6 percent, almost the same as in the previous election. Albanians also celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In the early morning, thousands of Muslim believers said prayers at the recently-renovated Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

All top leaders cast their ballots, congratulating Muslims on the holiday and urging citizens to vote. “Today, Albania needs God more than ever,” Rama said. The western city of Kavaja was also holding a mayoral election.

July 29, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s soccer federation is calling on Albanian authorities to stop the extradition to Serbia of a man who has claimed to have flown a drone carrying a nationalist banner over a stadium in Serbia, a display that prompted fan violence.

Ismail Morinaj was arrested in Croatia in June based on an arrest warrant from Serbia. A court in Dubrovnik agreed this week to extradite the 35-year-old Albanian to Belgrade. An Albanian Football Federation statement issued Saturday called on Albania’s government “to intervene within the legal context to stop extradition of Ismail Morinaj to Serbia.”

The federation assured Morinaj’s family it would keep fighting to prevent his extradition, saying it “is fully committed to exploiting all its institutional and diplomatic roads,” the statement said. Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has negotiated with Croatian authorities in the last two days “for the final solution of the process,” according to another statement from the federation.

Justice Minister Gazmend Bardhi also has formally asked Croatian authorities not to approve the Serbian request, arguing that “Albanian citizen Ismail Morina is endangered to suffer from politically motivated persecution or discrimination.”

A group of Albanian fans, Tifozet kuq e zi, (or Red and black fans, in English) has called for an evening rally in Albania’s capital, Tirana, to pressure the government to get involved. Morinaj, who is from the northeastern Kukes area but lives in Italy, has been a regular at the Albanian national team’s away matches.

His brother Xhevair complained to television station Report TV about the government’s lack of attention, saying Ismail’s life would be in danger in Serbia. “We call on the Albanian state to intervene and stop extradition to Serbia. We, as a family, would do something very radical which would surprise everyone,” he said without elaborating.

Violence interrupted an October 2014 European qualifying match between the Serbian and Albanian teams when a drone with an Albanian banner appeared over the pitch. The 0-0 game was suspended after Serbian fans injured some of the Albanian players who had tried rushing a Serbian player who pulled down the banner.

European soccer’s governing body ultimately awarded Albania the match victory, helping win the tiny western Balkan country a spot in the Euro 2016 finals, its first major tournament.

June 25, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians were voting Sunday in a general election that follows a landmark agreement between the country’s two biggest political parties to look past their bitter differences and back efforts for Albania to eventually join the European Union.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member. After earning EU candidate status in 2014, Tirana has struggled to pass important reforms vital for its bid to advance to EU — namely deeply reforming its corrupted justice system.

Eighteen political parties are running for 140 seats in parliament in Sunday’s vote. The main contenders are Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha.

An agreement reached in May ended the three-month parliamentary boycott by the Democrats, who claimed that voting was open to manipulation. The election date was delayed a week and Rama’s Socialists promised greater oversight on election transparency.

All main parties campaigned on a reform agenda, pledging faster economic growth, pay hikes and lower unemployment, which stands at about 14 percent. Some 6,000 police officers were on duty for election security, while more 300 international observers came to monitor the vote.

“We expect a better Albania and leaders to work to do what they have pledged at the campaign,” Zenel Caka, 47, said at a polling station in Tirana. Luan Rama of the Socialist Party for Motivation, the third main political party, said one member was injured following a quarrel and a shooting incident outside a polling station in Shengjin, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana.

Police investigating the incident said they found a cartridge but no injured person was taken to the hospital. They said it did not disrupt the voting. The Interior Ministry also reported hundreds of attempts to buy votes, a crime that may result in a jail term.

Central Election Commission said partial turnout at a quarter of polling stations by 10 a.m. was 12.6 percent, almost the same as in the previous election. Albanians also celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In the early morning, thousands of Muslim believers said prayers at the recently-renovated Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

All top leaders cast their ballots, congratulating Muslims on the holiday and urging citizens to vote. “Today, Albania needs God more than ever,” Rama said. The western city of Kavaja was also holding a mayoral election.

Preliminary results from the vote are expected Monday.

November 19, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — A former top-secret nuclear bunker reopened Saturday as a museum in Albania’s capital to show visitors how Communist-era police persecuted the regime’s opponents. The 1,000-square-meter (1,077-square-foot) bunker with reinforced concrete walls up to 2.4 meters (8-feet) thick was built between 1981 and 1986 to shelter elite police and interior ministry staff in the event of a nuclear attack.

The museum that opened in Tirana now holds photographs and equipment that illustrate the political persecution of some 100,000 Albanians from 1945 until 1991. The “Pillar” museum, as the nuclear bunker was codenamed, is one of several former hideouts the Albanian government has repurposed for the public since it came to power three years ago.

Both an island fortress and another underground bunker designed for Albania’s army command are now open to tourists, as is a leaf-covered villa that once housed the former communist country’s secret police, known as Sigurimi.

More may come from the scores of military installations erected during the paranoid, isolationist regime of the late dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled with an iron fist after the end of World War II until December 1990.

Hoxha’s regime, with an imaginary fear of invasion by the “imperialist United States and social-imperialist Soviet Union,” built concrete bunkers of all sizes around the country. At one time there were rumored to be as many as 700,000, but the government says 175,000 were built.

Prime Minister Edi Rama said the new museum reflects his Cabinet’s “will to pay back a debt to the memory of the former political persecuted, forgotten in the last 25 years.” Located downtown, it was designed to attract visitors from Albania and beyond “to learn about the ways that the former communist police persecuted their opponents,” curator Carlo Bollino said.

“This is the first memorial for the victims of the communist terror,” Bollino said. Twenty rooms in the new museum show Albania’s police history from 1912 until 1991, as well as the names of 6,027 people executed during the communist regime, the 34,000 imprisoned and the more than 50,000 sent to isolated internment camps.

The bunker was never used, “though it has always been operational,” according to Mehdi Sulo, 70, a museum guide. It also has been a focus of political demonstrations. In an anti-government rally a year ago, supporters of the main opposition Democratic Party destroyed part of a replica bunker built as the museum’s entrance. They complained that Rama’s governing Socialist Party was trying to glorify the country’s dark past.

The holes the demonstrators made in the entrance purposely were not repaired. “Bunkers once aimed at putting the enemy away, now they serve to attract people to remember the difficult past,” Rama said.

November 08, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Heavy rain in the Balkans caused swollen rivers to overflow Tuesday, flooding some homes and cutting electricity to remote areas. Authorities in Albania reported two deaths. Serbia’s state TV said surging waters cut a regional road in the southwest of the country and forced a dozen people to leave their homes.

A second day of rain caused floods in northern Montenegro, near the border with Serbia. Authorities in the town of Berane warned residents not to drink tap water. Albanian authorities said a body was found in a river in Tirana, the capital, while another man died while trying to cross a stream with his car, and there were unconfirmed reports of other deaths as the country struggled to cope with up to 100 millimeters (4 inches) of rain in some areas.

About 3,500 soldiers and emergency personnel have spread across the country to evacuate residents, more than 100 families, mainly ones living near rivers. The Defense Ministry said more than 200 troops and many specialized vehicles have been sent mainly to the northern Lezha district.

Speaking at an emergency meeting, Prime Minister Edi Rama said he expected rain to continue and that “the situation will be extremely grave.” Some 200,000 people were reported to be without power, and the Education Ministry called on all schools to suspend classes. Schools will be closed on Wednesday too.

October 19, 2016

SHKODRA, Albania (AP) — Where most people, even police, fear to set foot, Liljana Luani takes books, household supplies, and a lifetime of experience helping families marked for death. The 56-year-old school teacher from Shkodra in northern Albania uses her spare time to travel to remote hillside villages where children trapped in a centuries-old tradition of blood feuds are hidden by their families.

The feuds, often related to criminal rivalry, stem from an ancient code of conduct known as the Kanun, a detailed but primitive form of self-administration. A cycle of reciprocal killings that lasts for generations may start from an incident as serious as murder or as minor as a land dispute.

When Luani visits a village, the guard dogs recognize her and the people who live there barely react as she opens the metal gate and steps into a house. But the sense of danger is constant. “I am aware that my job is like walking through land mines. If I slip somewhere my family will pay for it,” Luani told The Associated Press, speaking in the home of a young boy hidden away to protect him from a vendetta. She gave him a lesson in math, grammar and the ancient Greek tale of “The Odyssey.”

“I am a teacher and teaching is not a profession for me. It’s a mission.” Typically only men are targeted in blood feuds. The feuds were largely suppressed during communism, but have been revived mainly in remote areas where the rule of law is perceived as weak. Victims are typically pursued over years and eventually ambushed, gunned down in the street, in a country awash with unlicensed weapons.

Police don’t report figures on the motives for murders, but revenge killings are blamed for dozens of deaths every year. Women are generally exempt, allowing Luani to travel without being targeted or followed. But post-communist revenge killings have occasionally strayed from traditional rules and the male bloodline to include women, minors, multiple killings and the use of assassins.

Luani says she is still haunted by the memory of a teenage boy who insisted on attending school and was shot dead in an ambush. For that reason, she doesn’t give specifics about the students she visits or why they are embroiled in blood feuds, because she’s scared that they will be identified. AP journalists also met with some blood feud targets who asked not to be identified for fear they would be found and killed.

On a typical weekday, Luani finishes classes, cooks at home for her family, and then sets off into what locals call the “accursed mountains,” steep and inhospitable, traveling by taxi van for up to an hour to reach the stranded children.

Several years ago, she helped start and support a pioneer shelter school in southern Albania, in some cases taking additional risks to persuade parents to let their children travel. “The school was a miracle, but it closed after three years due to corruption in public administration,” she said.

She fought in court to have it reopened, insisting that private donations were squandered through mismanagement by regional authorities. She won the case, but no action was taken. Groups that track blood feuds estimate that several thousand people, including young children, live in isolation because of them. Treated by many as outcasts, they often only venture out at night to get firewood, food and other supplies.

“Confined children do not grow up the way normal children do,” Luani said. “They miss everything. They miss freedom. They grow up fearing they will be killed or are focused on how to kill … Imagine that life.”

One recent visit was to a rundown house where a 40-year-old woman lives with her three sons, ages 14 to 19. They use a small yard to grow vegetables, and keep chickens and a cow. Neighbors and relatives provided some assistance, while Luani persuaded the power company to offer electricity at a discount.

The woman’s husband is in jail for murder and the family is unaccustomed to visitors. The mother cried frequently, while the two older boys disappeared into another room. Luani teaches the youngest son, in the hope it will help him escape the cycle of violence.

“I believe that when people are educated they usually do not fall prey to the blood feud phenomenon,” she said. Much of her effort, Luani says, is now focused on trying to persuade mothers not to bring up their sons to continue the vendettas. She accompanies them to municipal classes to that teach basic cooking, hygiene and personal care skills.

“Many say ‘well done’ to me, and make me out to be a hero. I don’t want that. I want much, much more to be done for these people,” she says. “As long as I am physically able to walk and talk, I will be with my students, my children.”

Llazar Semini in Tirana contributed to this report.