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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Albania Weeps, Rebels Bar Italy's Troops

TIRANA, Albania -- Albania mourned its dead at sea Monday, and southern rebels warned that any Italian troops in an international aid force were not welcome until Italy punished those found guilty in the sinking of a refugee boat.


"We will allow no Italian troops to come to our city unless those responsible for the incident are identified and charged," said a declaration from rebels controlling the southern port town of Vlore.


Many of the victims of Friday's tragedy came from Vlore, 100 kilometers south of Tirana and the site of some of the worst unrest generated by anger over collapsed investment schemes.


The 20-meter boat went down after colliding with the Italian warship, leaving four people dead and up to 79 missing and presumed dead.


Italian authorities have blamed the Albanian captain for the incident, but Albanian officials -- and the public -- say the Italian ship rammed the Albanian vessel on purpose. Italy is investigating.


More than 12,000 Albanians have fled to Italy, most of them after popular unrest turned into armed insurrection a month ago. Italy is eager to stop the influx and began returning the refugees several weeks ago.


Albania cannot afford to burden relations with Italy, particularly after Rome's decision to provide the backbone of the up to 5,000-strong international force being formed to guard aid shipments. The first soldiers are to start arriving within two weeks.


One of the force's main tasks will be to secure the airport in Tirana and the main ports of Durres and Vlore, where the humanitarian aid will arrive.


The coalition government reassured Italy for the second time Monday that it did not consider the sinking a manifestation of Italian policy and asked the Rome government to help recover the bodies of those still missing.


But the sinking fueled anti-Italian emotions in Vlore, the hometown of more than 60 of those missing at sea.


After the rebels' warning to Italians, issued Sunday, thousands demonstrated against them.


On Monday, which President Sali Berisha declared a day of mourning for those lost in the sea disaster, about 100 people -- mostly elderly parents or relatives of the victims -- threw fresh flowers in the sea. Young men shot in the air and shouted: "If the Italians dare come, we will throw them into the sea!"


Some bitterly remembered Albanian help to Italians during World War II, when Vlore families hid hundreds from the Germans. "The Italians shouldn't have done this," said Roland Idrizi, who lost his uncle and his family at sea. "We kept them in our families and hid them so that the Nazis did not kill them."


In Tirana, people stopped their cars and honked their horns for one minute. National flags were at half staff, and state radio and television played mournful music.


More were killed even amid the mourning.


Two children died Sunday in Berat, 120 kilometers south of Tirana, in an unexplained explosion, and a man was shot and killed overnight, the ATA state news agency reported. Another man was found dead in the outskirts of Vlore, and three others were injured in random violence, hospital officials said.