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Page last updated at 23:35 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 00:35 UK

Uncovering Albania's role in the Kosovo war

After the arrest of a man in Kosovo on war crimes charges this month, the BBC's Nick Thorpe visits Albania, which is at the centre of the EU-led investigation into torture and murder.

Boy on the beach at Durres, Albania
Durres is a popular holiday spot, but is implicated in a dark chapter of history

The Hotel Drenica still graces the sea-front in Durres, on Albania's Adriatic coast - one of a long line of hotels and restaurants waiting for the summer influx of tourists.

Children take their first dip of the season in the warming sea, while their parents sip coffee and watch them from the terraces, and boys play football on the sand.

Ties to neighbouring Kosovo run deep. Tens of thousands of refugees found shelter here during the war, and local people are proud of their role in helping their ethnic-Albanian brethren in their hour of need.

Many bars incorporate Kosovo in their names. In the 1998-99 conflict, the Hotel Drenica was at the centre of everything - it was the local headquarters of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

There is still an engraving on a red marble block at the back of the hotel, of a soldier and the initials UCK - the KLA.

But the arrest of Sabit Geci in Pristina on 6 May, and an ongoing investigation by the War Crimes Unit of Eulex - the European Union Law and Justice Mission in Kosovo - look set to show the role of Durres in a different light.

We panicked every time they opened the door, wondering who they were going to pick on next
Former prisoner, Kukes detention centre

Mr Geci, 51, stands accused of the torture and killing of ethnic Albanian prisoners of the KLA at a detention facility within a KLA base in the north-east Albanian town of Kukes in 1999. According to investigators, some of the 40 people who were mistreated in Kukes were detained by the KLA in Durres.

There were also Serb prisoners kept in Kukes - apparently kidnapped and smuggled in from across the border, and kept in a separate room.

Lawyers for Mr Geci say he denies all charges, and was receiving medical treatment in Slovenia during the period mentioned by Eulex, April-June 1999.

Interrogated

As Serb military and paramilitary forces swept through Kosovo in the spring of 1999, forcing 800,000 Kosovo Albanians from their homes, and killing more than 10,000, many refugees found shelter in Albania.

Ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo at a camp in Kukes, Albania
Many Kosovan refugees ended up in a refugee camp in Kukes, Albania

Some stayed in makeshift refugee camps near the border. Others were redistributed around the country, and an out-of-season tourist resort like Durres proved very useful.

But the KLA was curious about some of the new arrivals. Why were young men of military age not joining their ranks in the desperate conflict with the Serbs? Had some collaborated with the Serbs in the past? Did some belong to rival Albanian political and military factions? Had some even been sent as spies for the Serbs, to uncover KLA supply routes for men and guns into the country?

In Durres, the interrogations took place in the Hotel Drenica.

"Bad things happened here," said a man on the beach at Durres, nodding in the direction of the Hotel Drenica, "but I am not willing to talk about them."

Buses bedecked with red and black Albanian flags took the willing - and less willing - recruits back to the front.

Some men were taken prisoner and held in terrible conditions in detention facilities inside KLA camps. The one at Kukes, in a disused factory, was among the worst. A BBC investigation last year contacted former inmates.

"We panicked every time they opened the door, wondering who they were going to pick on next," one survivor of the Kukes camp told us.

"There were no good guards there. The ones who came from the fronts and had lost relatives would beat us up, or threaten us with automatic rifles.

"One man was killed in front of all the prisoners in that room, including myself. He was shot and left to bleed to death."

He could have understood such mistreatment, the witness added, if he had really been a traitor to the Albanian cause.

'Misuse of uniform'

The Prime Minster of Kosovo, and former political commander of the KLA, Hashim Thaci, last year denied that the KLA had mistreated prisoners in Kukes or elsewhere, telling the BBC: "It just didn't happen. At any time, in any case, in any place... this has nothing to do with the Kosovo Liberation Army."

Hotel Drenica, Durres, Albania
Like many local venues, the Hotel Drenica is proud of its links to Kosovo

He admitted that war crimes had been committed after the war, but said the culprits were "pretending they belonged to the KLA", by wearing its uniform.

But Eulex war crimes investigators believe Mr Geci, who is said to have been a key figure in KLA intelligence in Kukes, took part in the beatings there.

On 12 May, the house of another Kosovo Albanian suspect, Xhemshit Krasniqi, was raided in the western Kosovo town of Prizren. Some items were reportedly removed.

Eulex inherited 980 war-crimes cases from the outgoing UN mission in Kosovo. They have narrowed their investigations to just 20 cases - two of them across the border in Albania.

But they say their requests for help from the Albanian government - to visit former camps, interview witnesses, and exhume graves - have been stonewalled.

In February this year, Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur for extra-judicial killings, visited Albania and reported that "none of the international efforts to investigate KLA abuses in Albania has received meaningful co-operation from the government of Albania".

Ilir Meta, the Albanian deputy prime minister and foreign minister, denied that.

"Albania is willing to co-operate for respecting... international law with the international community, and I think that for every request we... will give the right answer," he told the BBC.

"Including with Eulex?" I asked.

"Why not?" he replied.



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