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Athens, Tirana confusion over assistance with wildfires

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A delegation of Albanian firefighters and civil defence equipment were reportedly sent back from the Greek border on Wednesday, but conflicting versions of events and the number of personnel involved have diverged between Athens and Tirana, leading to confusion amid a challenging time for bilateral relations.

Wildfires have ravaged northeastern Greece in the last few days, and at least 18 bodies – who were migrants – as well as a number of civilians, have been recovered. Meanwhile, hundreds of firefighters have been fighting to contain several blazes that have burned for days and seen large areas evacuated.

According to an announcement from the Albanian Defence Minister Niko Peleshi, 58 officers and 10 vehicles were sent towards the Kapshtica border crossing point to help Greek authorities contain the blazes.

But, according to Peleshi, the teams did not cross the border as Greece said they did not need the help as EU countries had already provided it.

“A team of 58 officers and 10 vehicles from the Armed Forces and other operational structures of the Albanian Civil Defense System, more specifically, the firefighting structures from the Municipality of Kor??, Dropull, Maliq and Gjirokast?r were deployed in the vicinity of the neighbouring country, to help colleagues Greeks, waiting for confirmation from the Greek side for intervention in the areas where they are needed.

“Meanwhile, after this, we were informed by the Greek side that it is no longer necessary to use the assistance offered by Albania because they have been completed by other countries,” he wrote on his official Facebook page.

He added, “The Ministry of Defense wishes that the serious situation in the friendly country passes as quickly and as easily as possible and remains committed to stand by friends, partners and neighbours in any case when the threat makes it necessary to reaffirm the principles that unite us.”

The minister expressed his shock and worry about the serious situation in Greece and offered his condolences to those who have lost their lives.

According to Peleshi’s post, the help was offered via the European Civil Protection Mechanism, which includes EU member states and nine non-EU states and provides disaster response, prevention and preparedness through collaboration and shared resources.

The Greek version

However, when contacted by EURACTIV, government sources in Athens reacted with surprise and said that the Albanians were assisting with the emergency in the Alexandroupoli region.

Shortly later, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis posted on X, formerly Twitter, thanks for Albania’s assistance with the matter.

“Our thanks go out to Albania for sending to Greece 48 firefighters and nine vehicles to join us as we fight the wildfires in Alexandoupoli. Thank you Albania,” he wrote.

When asked by EURACTIV, an Albanian government spokesperson pointed to an article on Top Channel, published moments before, which said that following a discussion between Peleshi and his Greek counterpart Vassilis Kikilias, 10 fire engines and 50 firefighters would now go to the country.

But, according to the post, they were not there and active at the time of publication.

“It is expected that the vehicles will pass before midnight at the border point of Kapshtica and will be deployed in the area of Alexandrupol to participate in firefighting operations in this area,” it was reported, adding that during the morning, two fire engines and nine employees had tried to cross the border but were turned back – a deviation from the post made by Peleshi earlier in the day.

Wednesday’s incident comes after Monday’s informal meeting of regional leaders in Athens, to which Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was not invited. Instead, President Bajram Begaj, whose role is non-political and largely ceremonial, declined due to previous engagements.

When asked about the apparent snub, Rama told EURACTIV, “Once the Balkans, always the Balkans,” in a nod to the Balkan mentality and stubbornness.

This came after tensions simmered following a protest in Himare, southern Albania, attended by Greek mayors and politicians, over the arrest and imprisonment of Albanian citizen and ethnic Greek Fredi Beleri for alleged vote buying during the 2023 local elections. Beleri went on to win the mayor’s seat but has not taken office due to his imprisonment and 48 other people on similar charges.

Athens has responded by threatening to block Albania’s EU accession path, claiming it is an issue of minority rights.

For its part, Brussels seems to be backing Athens in the case. Referring to Monday’s informal meeting, EU sources commented that when it comes to enlargement, resolving bilateral disputes is paramount, particularly those related to minority rights.

Rama insists that it is a matter of the rule of law and Athens must wait until the courts finish their work.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Rama was asked if he is worried about the threats against Albania’s EU path. He declined to answer and said only he is worried about whether oil found in Mount Shpirag will have the potential to change the economy of Albania.

“I am only afraid of this, nothing else,” he said.

(Alice Taylor EURACTIV.com – Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos)

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