Italian officials accused of stealing Kosovo aidRory Carroll
Thursday February 3, 2000
Italy is reeling from claims that its aid mission to help Kosovan refugees was hijacked by corrupt officials who colluded with the Albanian mafia after years of siphoning funds from other disaster relief efforts.
The head of the mission and three other officials have been arrested on suspicion of systematic embezzlement, false accounting and bribery - igniting fury that up to £40m of private donations to help those fleeing last year's war in Kosovo may have been misappropriated.
The accused are alleged to be a tight-knit group within the civil defence who pulled off similar scams after a 1997 earthquake in the centre of Italy and 1998 floods in the south.
The investigation into the Albanian mission is the most serious of three inquiries into aid to Albania which have uncovered mounting evidence of systematic corruption.
The government-sponsored Rainbow Mission to Albania was a source of national pride after it quickly set up 10 camps to accommodate 25,000 Kosovans who fled Serb ethnic cleansers and Nato bombing.
But prosecutors believe that the camp in Vlore, a near-lawless coastal town, was turned into a money-making machine for those who ran it.
They are accused of diverting humanitarian aid supplies to the black market, accepting bribes from contractors, paying excessively high prices for services, billing for non-existent vehicles and falsifying the accounts to try to cover their tracks.
Gangsters were allegedly allowed to drive off with entire kitchens, use the medical facilities and loot equipment.
The four officials - including Luciano Tenaglia, the camp's manager, and Massimo Simonelli, the field director of the mission to Albania - deny serious wrongdoing.
Mr Simonelli admits falsifying accounts, but denies personally accepting any money.
Last June and July they helped Rhami Isufi, an Albanian businessman, to steal bathroom fittings, thousands of kilos of pasta and other supplies, said Michele Emiliano, a prosecutor in Bari, south Italy.
Camp volunteers claim they heard officials discuss the possibility of making large gains, and hoping that the government would extend the mission to Kosovo after the war.
Prosecutors have concentrated on Vlore, which accommodated 5,200 refugees before being handed over to the Albanian government last April - but have not ruled out investigating the other camps.
Pressure to launch an inquiry started last September after Italian television aired a cook's amateur video footage showing dozens of Albanians looting the Vlore camp while officials stood by.
"The generosity of Italians has been betrayed. Our country is shamed. The government allowed our contributions to be managed by the Albanian mafia," said Enrico La Loggia, a senator of the opposition Forza Italia party.
Members of the public who responded to the government's plea last year for donations to help refugees are incandescent.
After months of insisting all was well, Massimo D'Alema, the prime minister, has admitted he underestimated the accusations.
The minister in charge of civil defence, Franco Barberi, has been demoted.
Mr D'Alema has attempted to deflect criticism. He met a class of primary school children who demanded the return of their £100 donation.
Disbelief turned to fury when investigators said the officials were a well-established team that had worked together on earthquake and flood relief efforts.
They were "steadily engaged in illegal activities", said Daniela Rinaldi, a Bari judge.
The scandal is blamed on the government's desire to court popularity by being seen to set up and control its own aid effort, rather than passing on the donations to non-governmental agencies that had worked in Albania before.
"There is no doubt that the Rainbow Mission was a political decision, not an operational one," said Gianfranco Schiavone, of the Italian Consortium for Solidarity.
Two other investigations have compounded the disillusionment with aid efforts in Albania.
Some 914 containers of goods donated from Italy and other European countries never left Bari port. Mismanagement, possibly criminal, is blamed for the fiasco.