TIRANA The prospect of Syria's chemical weapons being dismantled in Albania caused protests in the capital Tirana on Tuesday, exposing a rare dent in the NATO member's loyalty to the United States.
Hundreds protested in front of the U.S. embassy in the Adriatic republic, chanting "Albania is ours" and holding banners that read "Yes, we can say 'No'".
Albania has been named in several foreign media reports as a potential destination for the weapons, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pledged to get rid of as he seeks to turn the tide of international opinion in a more than two-year civil war.
Albanians have long felt a debt of gratitude to Washington, stretching back to the end of World War One when Woodrow Wilson saved the country from being dismembered by its neighbors, through the U.S.-led NATO bombing of then-Yugoslavia in 1999 to halt the massacre of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
But news that Syrian chemical weapons may be dismantled in Albania has been met with anger and complaints of exploitation.
"Albania belongs to the Albanians, not the international community," said activist Aldo Merkoci. "Only the sovereign people can rule on this matter. We are here today to say no."
"No, no, no!" the crowd echoed him. Youths held placards declaring "Love Albania like the PM loves the U.S.". A poster showed a finger-pointing Uncle Sam urging people to protest.
The protest followed smaller gatherings in the central town of Elbasan and its nearby Mjekes weapons dismantling facility, where the chemicals could be headed.
Some Albanians complain it would damage the environment and efforts to market Albania as an emerging tourist destination.
NO DECISION YET
Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama, who took office two months ago, confirmed on Tuesday that he had discussed the matter over the phone with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, but said no decision had been taken.
"I have not met the protesters simply because our silence does not hide anything and we are not at the point when we need to take a decision, and we might not get there," he told a news conference with visiting European Union enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule.
Rama is trying to breathe new life into Albania's bid to join the EU. The country joined NATO in 2009, but the West remains concerned at its level of democratic maturity.
"There is no doubt that were I not in my current office, I would have joined the protest upon hearing the experts painting such an apocalyptic scenario to Albanians," said Rama. "But in my office I do not see this apocalyptic scenario."
One senior opposition figure has branded Rama "Chemical Edi", accusing him of keeping the public in the dark.
With U.S. help, Albania successfully dismantled its communist-era stockpiles of chemical weapons. The destruction of weapons shells, however, killed 28 people in 2008.
The issue has echoes of a political row over waste imports, which also drew accusations that Albania was being exploited by its richer partners in Europe. Rama's government banned waste imports after taking office.
Rama on Tuesday said he would inform the public and parliament of the government's decision, pledging to uphold the interests of Albania.
(Reporting By Benet Koleka, Editing by Matt Robinson and Janet Lawrence)