Date: Wed, 13 Jan 2016 04:21:54 +0100
By Briseida MEMA

Tirana, Albania, Jan 13, 2016 (AFP) - With her sick daughter in the arms, Mira Lela pushes her way through the hallway of the doctor's clinic, crowded with patients ailing from heavy pollution in Albania's capital.   "This is an emergency, she has difficulty breathing," said the tearful woman, forcing open the door to the office of Bardhyl Vaqari, who has worked in the specialist Tirana clinic for more than 20 years.   "An acute asthma attack," said the doctor on seeing the child.   "The number of people with respiratory allergies and cardiovascular problems has greatly increased," he told AFP, adding that the number of patients on the clinic's books has more than doubled to 8,000 in the last four years.

On the noisy and congested streets outside, clapped-out bangers and Hummer trucks cross paths with Mercedes, BMWs and overloaded buses that leave a trail of black smoke and heavy odour.    Having been cut off from the world under a strict communist regime until 1991, the Western Balkan city had just a few hundred cars on its roads in the 1990s.

But today, through a mixture of pride, luxury-seeking and necessity, given the lack of public transport, there are more than 190,000 cars circulating in a city of about one million people.   "Albanians take the car even when going to buy bread in a nearby store. That's why the traffic is overloaded all day and this increases pollution levels," said Altin Duka, a despairing 65-year-old shopkeeper.

The average age of vehicles on Tirana's roads is around 16 years, twice the European average, according to Gani Cupi, deputy manager of Albania's Road Transport Services.    Many of the vehicles do not meet the standards of the European Union, which Albania hopes to join.   "The traffic load, the age of vehicles, their technical condition but also the poor quality of fuel are all factors contributing to the capital's pollution," said Cupi.

- Taxing dilemmas -
In a bid to clean up the air, Albanian authorities considered doubling taxes on ageing vehicles but then dropped such plans. Analysts suggested the cost would weigh too heavily on citizens in one of the poorest countries in Europe.   New cars are already exempt from paying annual tax for the first three years, but authorities in 2012 lifted a levy on the import of old vehicles as the EU considered it a "fiscal discrimination".

Tirana's Mayor Erion Veliaj has pledged to battle against the fumes by increasing the number of green spaces, introducing hybrid buses and improving infrastructure in the city, which is crammed with mostly illegal constructions.   "The number of vehicles does not stop growing," he told AFP, pointing out that about 500 people die in the city each year "because of respiratory or cardiovascular problems related to pollution".

A report this year from the European Environment Agency noted a 20 to 30 percent decrease in Tirana's concentration levels of PM10 and PM2.5 -- damaging particulate matter -- according to data assessment from 2011 to 2013.   But Laureta Dibra, head of the air and climate change department at Albania's Environment Ministry, told AFP that PM10 levels had actually been rising in areas of heavy traffic in recent years.   Tirana remains "among the most polluted cities in Europe", added the director of the National Environment Agency, Julian Beqiri.   "The level of the population's exposure to pollutants is still a problem," he said.

- On your bikes -
In an effort to improve air quality in the capital and educate residents, Tirana organised two car-free days in 2015, when the air was said to be at least four times less polluted than usual.   Worried activists are campaigning to promote the bicycle as a means of transport and a way of life.   Ecovolis, a bike sharing system, rents out at least 200 bicycles from different tations around Tirana, at 60 leke (44 euro cents, $0.47) per bike per hour -- but many people still prefer getting behind the wheel.

Although Albania's energy minister claims that 95 percent of fuel meets the required standards, even Prime Minister Edi Rama attacked its quality in May last year.   "It is so bad that even a strong car like a Mercedes ends up being bad for Albanians' lungs," he said, calling for urgent measures to improve fuel controls.   The government says restrictions have since been tightened, but those at the frontline of the fumes remain unhappy.   "I come home in the evening with a completely dry throat and a bitter taste my mouth," said Bequir Veseli, 37, a traffic policeman who spends eight hours a day at the centre of a chaotic roundabout.   "I have trouble breathing but what can I do? The next day I have to go back to my post".
Date: Sat, 4 Jul 2015 11:47:34 +0200 (METDST)

Tirana, July 4, 2015 (AFP) - Two Czech tourists were shot dead while travelling by car in northern Albania, Albanian police said Saturday.   The two tourists, identified by police as Michael Svatos, 27, and Anna Kosinova, 36, were found dead in their car on Friday in Prekal, some 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of capital Tirana in Dukagjin region, the police said.

Investigators found a rifle in the car and a dozen bullet casings outside the vehicle.    The two were on their way to join a group of other Czech tourists in the town of Theth in the same region.    Police said it has questioned around a dozen people over the incident.   Three Czech tourists who disappeared in Dukagjin in 2001 are still missing.
Date: Tue, 10 Feb 2015 14:27:08 +0100 (MET)

Tirana, Feb 10, 2015 (AFP) - Albania's capital was rocked Tuesday by two blasts targeting a pharmacy owned by a minister's family and the apartment of a senior police officer.   No one was injured in the pre-dawn explosions described by Prime Minister Edi Rama as "terrorist acts".   The first explosion heavily damaged the pharmacy owned by Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri's family, a police statement said.

The second blast, which followed shortly afterwards, rocked the apartment of a police official, also causing heavy damage, the statement said.   Rama said the blasts were clearly aimed at intimidating Tahiri's family.   "The perpetrators will be found and brought to justice soon," he vowed in a statement.   Police also said they had defused a third explosive device around 0515 GMT, near a bus station just a few meters (feet) from the site of the first blast.   Local prosecutors said a probe was underway.
Date: Sun, 23 Nov 2014 06:42:07 +0100 (MET)

TIRANA, Nov 23, 2014 (AFP) - The massive, top secret Cold War nuclear bunker of former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha was opened to the public on Saturday, decades after it was built by the paranoid communist regime fearing an attack by the West that never came.   The ex-dictator's bed, covered with a red mattress, is still in place in his bunker bedroom, with a Soviet-era radio placed on his bedside table.    During Hoxha's 40-year rule, Albania was one of the world's most isolated countries, obsessed about an attack by the West.

Now, 24 years after the fall of the regime, its countryside is still dotted by the remains of some 700,000 bunkers. Officials have said the structures, referred to as "mushrooms" by locals, were built to be indestructible and defend against an army of millions.   According to informed sources, Hoxha, who died in 1985, had at least four secret refuges built for him and his family around Tirana.   Built into the side of a mountain just east of the capital Tirana, the 2,685 square metre (28,900 square foot) underground shelter opened Saturday sprawls over five levels and contains 106 rooms, including a cinema.

Built covertly between 1972-1978, it was designed to serve as the headquarters of the central committee and the communist assembly in the event of war.   A guide at the opening described it as a "real five-star" complex.   "We have decided to open everything up," Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama after visiting the site.   "The idea to build it arose after a visit (by Hoxha) to North Korea in 1964," said defence ministry spokesperson Edlira Prendi.    Until recently the giant bunker still featured on an Albanian army "top secret" list, she added.   The bunker will be placed under the care of the tourism and culture ministry, and will also host a museum and an exhibition space for artists.
Date: Wed, 19 Nov 2014 11:02:13 +0100 (MET)

TIRANA, Nov 19, 2014 (AFP) - Three people were killed overnight in northern Albania in severe flooding caused by torrential rains, police said on Wednesday.   A 63-year-old man and his 23-year-old daughter died after their car was carried away by flood waters while they were driving on a mountain road.   Their bodies were found early Wednesday in a canal, some two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the site of the accident, a police statement said.

The third victim was a 23-year-old man who died on Tuesday evening in the same area, some 45 kilometres (28 miles) north of capital Tirana, when a bridge that he was crossing on motorcycle collapsed.   Due to heavy rains, several houses in the northern Albanian region as well as around Tirana were still flooded Wednesday. Some areas were also threatened by landslides.   Police and army have dispatched rescue teams to help families hit by the floods.
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