An Albanian town awash in guns and warlords

The government long ago gave up trying to tame Bajram Curri, where

The convoy was 15 miles short of town when the Kalashnikov-brandishing bandits struck, lured by the four expensive trucks and their cargoes of food and soap for 2,400 Kosovar Albanian refugees.

Policemen guarding the trucks hauling the aid for Concern Worldwide, a private Irish group, fired back. The bloodless hour-long clash April 27 ended with the arrival of more cops and Albanian troops. Outgunned, the gang fled.

Nowhere else in Albania has there been such an attack on a convoy bearing relief for some of the 395,600 ethnic Albanians purged from Kosovo. But this is no ordinary place. This is Bajram Curri.

Located in the Northern Albanian Alps, the poorest region of Europe's poorest state, Bajram Curri has returned to its centuries-old past of brigandage and warlordism, awash in so many guns that few people venture out after dark. The government long ago gave up trying to tame this town, where five of the 5,000 people have been murdered this year, residents say.

The insecurity is heightened by a huge Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) presence. With the apparent consent of Tirana, the Albanian capital, the rebels use Bajram Curri as a transit point for camps on the border with Kosovo, which runs about eight miles to the north. Camouflage-clad rebels are everywhere, seated outside the Club Kosova restaurant, sauntering in the streets, and recovering from wounds in the hospital.

United Nations aid agencies pulled out of Bajram Curri in October. In the past few weeks, bandits have heisted four four-wheel drive vehicles and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment from at least eight news organizations. Even a key KLA operative who came to Bajram Curri to "make it safe for journalists" had his Jeep stolen by armed thugs in the town center less than three hours after arriving. He got it back only because of his friendship with the chief warlord.

So brazen are the thieves that they have stolen four vehicles from monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the only international presence still here. The thieves returned one vehicle but cruise the streets in the other three, which still sport OSCE emblems.

Asked why the bandits are allowed to continue operating, one fatigue-dressed policeman grins: "They have relatives in the police." That may be why some "officers" - young men with bandoleers hung on chests, Kalashnikovs stashed on front seats, dark glasses affixed to eyes - were seen during a recent visit driving several vehicles pilfered from Western journalists.

Residents say the near-anarchy has spawned the re-emergence of tribal rivalries and hakmarrje, or the blood feud, a centuries-old practice among the clans of northern Albania and Kosovo. Under a tribal code known as the "Canon of Lek Dukagin," a slight of one's honor must be erased by killing the offender. But the code then requires the victim's closest male relative to avenge the slaying, creating a cycle of murder and countermurder that can force men into hiding for years.

Bajram Curri is said to be the domain of the Haklaj clan, led by Fatmir Haklaj, a burly man in his early 30s. He is the police "commander," in theory a post subservient to the uniformed chief, but in reality the top slot.

The collapse of communism in 1992 loosened Tirana's grip on Bajram Curri; it ended completely in 1997 when anarchy erupted with the failures of pyramid schemes in which tens of thousands of Albanians lost their savings. It was then, people say, that Mr. Haklaj and his brothers, ending five years of sheltering in the mountains from a blood feud, returned to Bajram Curri and took charge.

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