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18th Jun 2019

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Albania won't become EU 'gateway,' Italian admiral says

  • Italian navy couldn't stop migrant boats, like the Vlora, in the 1990s Albania crisis (Photo: Alan Kotok)

There is little risk that migrants will enter the EU en masse via Albania, Italy’s former defence chief has said, adding that a deal with Russia on Syria is the best way to restore “stability”.

“I don’t think it [Albania] will become the main gateway [for migrants]," admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli told EUobserver from Italy in an interview on Thursday (10 March).

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  • Binelli Mantelli (centre, on left) was Italy's defence chief from 2013 to 2015. (Photo: US Naval Forces Europe-Africa)

“Albania has very attentive border control and doesn’t suffer from illegal immigration,” he said.

He also said it has a “strong will” to work with the EU because it wants to be a member and because it’s a “full Nato ally.”

Concern had mounted that migrants would divert to Albania after the EU closed the Greek-Macedonia border this week.

The closure of the Western Balkan corridor was part of a broader EU deal with Turkey on taking back migrants.

Binelli Mantelli was chief of the Italian Defence General Staff from 2013 to 2015.

He also took part in operations in Italy's migrant crisis in the early 1990s, when the fall of communism in Albania prompted a mass exodus of people across the Adriatic.

The EU-Turkey deal centres on stopping migrants crossing the Aegean to Greece. But Binelli Mantelli said the 1990s crisis showed that navies can’t stop migrant boats.

He recalled the Vlora incident in 1991 when thousands of Albanian migrants forced a cargo ship to enter the port of Bari in Italy.

“We tried to stop it with some harassment by our vessels but it was impossible because it was very dangerous for the people on board,” he said.

“When you’re at sea any operation quickly turns into a rescue operation. It’s not like a land theatre … Even in World War II when our submarines waged war they also came to rescue people.”

He said Italy stabilised the 1990s crisis by working with Albania’s post-communist government to stop migrant boats from leaving shore.

“This is a problem of intelligence, surveillance, and interception. You need strong security cooperation between the countries involved,” he said.

Russia deal

Binelli Mantelli, who is retired, said his comments reflected his personal opinion and not the official position of the Italian military.

He said a deal with Russia would do more to help the current situation than the EU deal with Turkey.

Russia’s “very powerful [military] posture” in Syria has put it in a position to restore the authority of its ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the Italian admiral said.

The EU and US have said Assad must leave power due to war crimes.

But Binelli Mantelli said: “At the moment the only stability that we can have is with Bashar al-Assad there. There are no other solutions.”

He said that “the migrant problem from Turkey and Greece will continue” despite the EU-Turkey deal.

He said the huge number of migrants makes “the eagerness to stop them there weak” in both countries.

He also said the Turkey-Greece sea crossing is hard to police.

“There are many ferries with trucks which contain clandestine migrants … There are tourist boats full of people and, in the summer, lots of sail boats and motor boats, so migrant boats can come undetected,” he said.

In terms of broader Russia relations, he said there is no risk of a Russia-Nato military confrontation.

“I’m not so worried about the Ukraine crisis. We will probably find a solution with Russia, a reasonable agreement, which of course means giving up something,” he said.

He said Russia would “never withdraw” from Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

“For all the faults of Russia, its show of muscles, its power-policy, but also for that same reason we should be careful about surrounding Russia too much with Nato. They have a different approach. We’re more confident. But they’re not so confident in the [Nato-Russia] relatioship,” he said.

IS in Libya

Binelli Mantelli warned that instability in Libya could “intensify” migration in the western Mediterranean.

He said the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has penetrated Libya via an east-west maritime corridor from Syria and via Mali.

The EU is taking part in UN-led talks on a Libya unity government. It is also interested in relaunching a border control mission in Libya.

But Binelli Mantelli said: “It isn’t a problem of two or three governments. It’s a problem of more than 100 tribes, each one with its own interests in human trafficking, oil smuggling, arms, and drugs. People say we should talk with this or that government [in Libya], but they [Libyan authorities] have no power to control the tribes.”

He said Egypt is helping Nato to stop IS in Libya.

Egypt is to take delivery of two French warships, the so-called Mistral amphibious assault vessels, in September. Binelli Mantelli said “hypothetically” that Egypt could use them “to improve the posture of its forces from Tobruk [in eastern Libya] westward.”

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