- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

Albania’s prime minister would like the CIA and the U.S. government to know that he is delighted to do what he can to help them in the war on terrorism. “We have had, and still we have very close cooperation with CIA, and we will continue to have this,” Sali Berisha said in an interview last week. He stipulated, however, that his country never hosted CIA secret prisons known as “black sites” or asked his security forces to assist in torture.

Mr. Berisha was less clear on the topic of rendition, when U.S. operatives snatch suspected terrorists in foreign countries and fly them to foreign or U.S. prisons outside of formal extradition procedures. He said he had allowed CIA flights in his country but later said the CIA did not ask for permission.

He then said he did not remember what flights he may have allowed the CIA from Albania since becoming prime minister in July 2005 and during the years he was president, from 1992 to 1997.

“We have a very good cooperation, since the very beginning,” he said. “Albania’s cooperation against terrorism with CIA is one of the most fruitful ones.”

Mr. Berisha’s comments come as human rights groups in his country are suing the government to determine the extent of its cooperation with CIA renditions. A group called the Center for the Development and Democratization of Institutions in Albania filed a civil lawsuit against the Albanian Defense Ministry over the weekend, charging that a suspected terrorist, Khaled el-Masri, was flown from the military airport at Kucova to Afghanistan, where he says he was later tortured.

The Albanian ambassador in Washington, Aleksander Sallabanda, offered no comment about the court case when asked on Wednesday.

Albania, a Chinese Maoist satellite during the Cold War and a majority Muslim nation, is also thought to be one of the countries the U.S. government cooperated with in the first years of President Clinton’s rendition program against al Qaeda.

The Human Rights Watch report “Black Hole,” which examined renditions under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said, “In 1998, the U.S. government moved against a group of alleged militants living in Tirana, Albania. The Albanian secret police, in cooperation with the CIA, monitored the group for several years and observed members carrying out various low-level criminal activities, such as counterfeiting and the production of fake passports and visas.”

Members of the cell in the Albanian capital were sent to an Egyptian special security prison where all the suspects were tortured, said the Egyptian lawyer for four of the men, Muntassir al-Zayyat, during an interview last month with The Washington Times.

“Historically, Albania has cooperated with the CIA to the extent of allowing suspects to be abducted from Albanian soil and delivered to Egypt, where they were tortured,” said Joanne Mariner, counterterrorism director for Human Rights Watch, in an interview.

Mr. Berisha said the agency “never asked for wrongdoing of operations, for operations which are not [legal].” He said he considered the flights by the CIA to be legal requests from a legal organization.

Mr. Berisha, a Muslim, was in Washington last week in part to attend the National Prayer Breakfast. While in town, he met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to discuss his country’s bid to join NATO. Mr. Berisha said he received assurances from both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Biden that the United States would support Albania’s bid to join the trans-Atlantic pact.

“Secretary Clinton told me that we are really impressed by the reforms in Albania, and so I think it was, for me, was really a driving motive. This NATO membership [has] become a powerful driving motive … and not only for me but for all my nation,” Mr. Berisha said.

A State Department official who asked not to be named confirmed Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.

“The government and people of Albania are to be commended for their hard work to meet NATO’s high standards,” the official said. “Secretary Clinton conveyed this to the prime minister, as well as her expectations that the government of Albania would continue to meet its reform obligations.”

Mr. Berisha also said Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton promised him President Obama would visit Albania, though he did not say when. Neither the State Department nor the White House would confirm the visit.

Mr. Berisha called Mr. Obama’s victory a “great achievement for mankind.”

“President Obama in some aspects is the president of all nations; all religions and races found a part of themselves in him. That’s truth. That’s why I think he has the same ratings in the world, as well as here.”

Mr. Berisha also had some kind words for President Bush, who in 2007 became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country. He said he visited Iraq in 2005 after the second round of national elections and he found people who were excited about the right to vote.

“I never regret toppling dictators,” Mr. Berisha said. “I am sure that the world [is better] without [Slobodan] Milosevic, without Saddam [Hussein]. It’s not easy, it’s still a difficult task, but we have a better world.”

Mr. Berisha in the interview was most interested in talking about his commitment to the free market. He pointed out that he lowered taxes on small businesses to 1.5 percent and lowered the corporate and personal income taxes to 10 percent, making Albania one of the friendlier business climates in all of Europe. He added that he also has streamlined the process for business permits and helped eliminate corruption.

• Erin Spiegel and Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.

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