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Albania: Crime Wave Alarms Bosses

Two killings and a kidnapping give businessmen the jitters.
By Zylyftar Bregu

A month has passed since unknown gunmen killed the colorful Tirana businessman, Fatmir Rama - and rival politicians trading blame over his death can agree only on one claim: his killers were probably not avid football fans.


Rama was gunned down on March 29 outside Kartodrom 2000, the entertainment complex he owned on the outskirts of Tirana, on an evening when most of the country was busy watching the Albanian national soccer team in action against Russia.


The investigation into Rama's death has drawn a blank, and in the last month another killing and a kidnapping have sent fresh shivers down the spines of Albania's businessmen - gifting the opposition new ammunition with which to attack the government's record on law and order.


Iron tycoon Florian Vila was shot dead outside his house in a posh Tirana neighborhood on April 9, and on April 21, in the city of Vlora, the nephew of leading cement dealer Sulo Shehu was kidnapped.


Shehu's nephew was released within four days after a police raid, which netted six suspects, including one policeman. However, no arrests have been made for Vila's murder.


Businessmen are anxious - they want the government to punish the killers and show it is serious about tackling the threat of organised crime.


The opposition Democratic Party is making sure the businessmen's concerns are heard, holding the government directly responsible for the latest violence.


It has prepared a resolution for parliament, asking the ruling Socialists to protect legitimate businesses from the upsurge in violence. In a press conference on April 28, Sali Berisha, the Democratic leader, said the resolution will "denounce the indifferent attitude of the government and its probable links with such (criminal) acts". These, Berisha said, were carried out to protect the business interests of members of the ruling party.


The government has responded by saying Berisha is trying to make political capital out of a string of unrelated gangland attacks. Bardhyl Agasi, deputy leader of the parliamentary group of the Socialists, said, "We condemn such cases, but these are only sporadic, and it seems to me, they are being politicised. There is no need to say that business is under threat."


Berisha's case rests on his claim that both Florian Vila and Sulo Shehu were affiliated to the Democratic Party. Shehu has funded the party in the past, while Vila was known for his right-wing views.


After the kidnapping of Shehu's nephew, Berisha turned up at the family's home in Vlora to denounce Prime Minister Fatos Nano and his government for their links to organised crime.


Shehu, meanwhile, offered a reward of 10 million US dollars for his nephew's release, and told reporters that "if the government does not fully engage in freeing him, I will move my business - I will be safer in Iraq".


The discovery of the kidnapped nephew four days later in a hideout 60 km outside Vlora spared Shehu the hassle of carrying out his move to the war-ravaged Arab state.


However, the Rama and Vila murders remain unsolved, despite an announcement from the Minister of Public Order Luan Rama (no relation to Fatmir) that a joint team will be established to look into the killings.


Luan Rama made his promise after meeting President Alfred Moisiu, General Prosecutor Dhori Sollaku and secret service chief Kujtim Hysenaj on April 19.


But the move appears to have backfired on the Socialists and given Berisha another reason to lambast the government, accusing it of unhealthy dealings with Fatmir Rama.


It was not the first time such an accusation was being made. Last year, Nano attacked his fellow Socialist and the then-prime minister, Ilir Meta, of "drawing up his government from the members of Rama's Kartodrom club".


He added that Rama had an international arrest warrant to his name - a charge immediately denied by the interior ministry. Nano's comments were seen as part of a strategy to present himself as a clean pair of hands within the party, untainted by underworld links.


One year later, however, Nano's government itself stands accused of shielding the owner of Kartodrom 2000 from an Interpol warrant.


The existence of the warrant was confirmed after Fatmir Rama's death - he was wanted in Italy for drug-trafficking - and on April 22, the Democratic spokesman, Edi Paloka, said the government had been blocking the warrant.


Luan Rama then declared on April 30 that the Kartodrom owner's killers had been identified, but his claim was immediately denied by the prosecutor's office.


Diplomatic observers say that the public order minister's claim was an attempt to show he means business and limit the damage to his reputation.


Luan Rama has already sacked the chief of police in Tirana, Colonel Ilirian Zylyftari. Although no reason for the dismissal was given, unofficial sources say it was an attempt to pre-empt criticism for the worsening law and order situation.


Albania's politicians have been under continuous pressure from the EU to clean up their act so that the country can gain aid and acceptance from the West.


Zylyftar Bregu is editor at the Albanian Gazeta Shqiptare newspaper.


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