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Cohen: No need for U.S. evacuation from Albania

March 5, 1997

STUTTGART, Germany (AP) _ With the Clinton administration increasing diplomatic pressure on Albania, Defense Secretary William Cohen said Wednesday there was no reason to evacuate Americans from the strife-torn nation _ but U.S. warships were standing ready in case.

``We are concerned with events that are occurring there, we are following it closely. At this time, there are no military plans″ for an evacuation of the 1,600 U.S. citizens in Albania, Cohen told reporters. ``Hopefully, they will be able to resolve the situation on their own.″

Gen. George Joulwan, NATO’s top commander, who flanked Cohen at a news conference, said that should the situation worsen, U.S. Navy ships are standing by in the Adriatic.

In the latest instances of unrest, Albanian jets attacked the port town of Saranda on Wednesday, and government forces and armed militants exchanged gunfire across a river east of Vlora.

In Washington, the White House for the first time expressed reservations about President Sali Berisha’s re-election by parliament this week. U.S. aides said Berisha should not use the unrest as an excuse to solidify his power.

``The United States government has very real concerns about the situation in Albania and views with some alarm the re-election of President Berish by the parliament,″ White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.

``We are very troubled by the evidence of civil disturbance and ask all the leadership of Albania to prevail upon the people of Albania to respect basic rights, to refrain from violence and to avoid actions that would likely provoke a population that is rightly concerned about the future of democracy,″ McCurry told reporters.

A three-ship Marine amphibious ready group led by a helicopter assault ship, USS Nassau, is in the waters between Italy and Albania. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is in the Ionian Sea conducting maneuvers, military officials said.

Cohen and Joulwan spoke with reporters following a briefing by the four-star Army general at his European command headquarters in Stuttgart.

The new defense secretary said he is concerned about the turmoil in Albania, but called it principally a domestic problem.

``We have ships in the region, we are in communication with the ambassador,″ Joulwan said.

The general, who is responsible for U.S. forces in that area, said he, too, has been monitoring the situation closely. But the most recent conversations with Ambassador Marisa Lino have indicated ``there is no need for action.″

The collapse of a pyramid financial scheme has touched off violence in several cities in Albania, and demonstrators have blamed the government of President Sali Berisha for their woes.

Cohen spent about five hours in Stuttgart after dense fog caused the cancellation of a planned helicopter trip and visit to a U.S. training area in northern Bavaria.

The new defense secretary was briefed on U.S. operations in Bosnia and the forces he is slated to meet with on Thursday near Tuzla. He has been adamant that U.S. troops will leave Bosnia in June 1998, at the end of the peacekeeping mission.

Cohen and Joulwan stressed the need for beefing up local police forces in order to help stem the violence that recently has plagued the city of Brcko, and called on authorities in Bosnia to take action.

Brcko, a port on the Sava River, has been hotly contested by all the three formerly warring factions in Bosnia. The city is in the U.S. peacekeeping sector in northeastern Bosnia. In recent weeks, the local police have not prevented Serbs from burning homes of Muslims attempting to return to the area.

``We need to see a police academy graduating 500 (police) every three months of a multinational police force, a multiethnic police force, ... that’s one of the things that can be done,″ Joulwan said.

Cohen, echoing statements by the British and German defense ministers, said NATO forces ``went in together, they will go out together.″

``Only the Bosnians can assure long-term peace and stability for their country,″ Cohen said.

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