Operation Albania

VALONA IN ALBANIA, and Otranto in Italy, are only 50nm (93km) away from each other; two hours’ sailing time for a yacht given good weather. However, Valona is now the centre of a rebellion against the Albanian Government following the collapse of pyramid saving schemes in which thousands of Albanians lost all their life savings. They demanded the resignation of the President, 52-year-old Sali Berisha, but his reaction was to send in the tanks and the first week of engagement saw hundreds of casualties and a massive exodus of refugees to Italy.

With the image of overloaded refugee boats arriving in Italy in 1991 still fresh in the mind and the fear that the situation will worsen, the Italian Ministry of Defence decided on March 1, when the crisis became civil war, to increase the military presence at Adriatic bases in order to face any emergency and to prepare for the reception of large numbers of refugees.

Aircraft and ships from the Italian Air Force, Army, Navy and Coast Guard were deployed to Brindisi, Amendola, Bari, Gioia del Colle and Grottaglie to patrol the coast line and to ensure that Search and Rescue operations were in place should the need arise.

On March 3 the Crisis Unit of the Italian Government ordered the Armed Forces to plan and instigate a combined action to rescue Italian citizens, plus German and Dutch reporters being kept as hostages in Valona some 50nm south of the Albanian capital city, Tirana. The evacuation mission, unofficially called Operation Albania, began at Amendola base where two CH-47 Chinooks from Reggimento Antares of the Aviazione Leggera Esercito (ALE) took off to position at Brindisi. At 14:26ZT the two helicopters, EI-833 and EI-815, left Brindisi inbound for Valona for the rendezvous with the hostages. At the same time, two Italian Navy warships, the support vessel San Giorgio and the frigate Aliseo, which were involved in a multi-national exercise in the Adriatic Sea, were sent to patrol off the Albanian coastline.

Two Tornados from 36° Stormo based at Gioia del Colle were on CAP alert ready to intervene if necessity. As soon as the Chinooks approached the coastline they were met by two SH-3D Sea Kings carrying 15 special forces personnel of the Battaglione San Marco, and 2 AB-212s equipped with machine-guns to give covering fire if required. At 15 12ZT the formation reached the planned landing zone (LZ) and the Chinooks landed, boarded all the hostages and took-off in only eight minutes, while the others were circling above the area ready for any hostile action.

After 46 minutes they finally landed back at Brindisi having successfully completed the first evacuation from Albania. Other airlifts followed including some by US Marine Corps CH-53s and CH-46Es and some Albanian Mi-4 Hounds which are now at Brindisi.

On March 4, a MIG-I5U Fagot belonging to the Albanian Air Force landed at Galatina air base at 11.22ZT with the two pilots asking for asylum. The aircraft had taken off at 10.00ZT from Kucova airfield for a routine training flight when the crew was ordered to attack a civil rebel column near the city of Gyrocaster.

However, both pilots, 34-year-old Capt Ddjci Agron and 35-year-old Maj Ardian Elezy, decided to defect and so descended to low level and headed for the Italian coast.

The unexpected visitor was immediately detected by Italian air defence radar and the confirmation that a zombie was inbound came from a military pilot flying high above the southern Adriatic.

The Regional Operational Centre at Martina Franca scrambled an F-104 from Gioia del Colle to intercept the unidentified aircraft. The pilots of the MiG signalled their intention to land by lowering their undercarriage and the Starfighter guided them to the IAF air base at Galatina. The MiG however began its approach without permission and landed on the wrong runway heading, almost colliding with some locally-based MB-339s. In its efforts to avoid the other traffic at the holding point, the Fagot overshot the runway and was only able to stop its run thanks to a raised barrier. The MiG was immediately surrounded by the military police but the two fugitives were able to explain themselves in good Italian to the base commander Col Claudio Berretta. The defecting pilots now risk 20 years in prison in their native country, which has, for the moment, only officially requested the MiG’s return.

While European countries are studying sending future multi-national military task forces to Albania, Italian Forces are keeping their alert status in order to face any threat coming from the east.

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