TIRANA (Reuters) - Construction work has begun on Albania’s first Club Med seaside resort village, but only after police cleared away a roadblock set up by protesting villagers and made several arrests, officials said on Thursday.
Four years after the government gave the go-ahead, television pictures showed building equipment and heavy machines digging near the beach on the bay of Kakome, facing Greece’s holiday island of Corfu.
Angry villagers say the developers have not obtained the correct building permit and the authorities had no right to let work begin before the appeals court has ruled on who owns the land — the government or 129 local families.
The row highlights the confusion over title to property in post-communist Albania. Who owns what remains a key challenge to economic progress and returning property to pre-communist owners is mired in corruption and favoritism.
“We have now begun work and everything is going normally. I thank the government and the police for their help,” said Dritan Celaj, manager of the local Club Med partner Albanian Riviera.
Villagers said work had started at dawn on January 9 after 400 policemen, equipped with two armored cars and sniper rifles, smashed through a roadblock of villagers’ cars.
The project’s developers and the government hope the 30 million euro project will put Albania, which closed itself off from the world for nearly 40 years after World War Two under Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, on the mass tourism map.
With French-owned Club Mediterranee as tour operator and partner, local firm Albanian Riviera won a license in 2004 from Socialist Prime Minister Fatos Nano to build 350 luxury villas with 700 beds in the center of the horseshoe-shaped bay.
Club Med did not answer written requests for updated information on the project.
Vladimir Kumi, the elected regional chairman, said the government had broken the law by allowing work to start before an Albanian appeals court had ruled on whether the government or 129 local families own the location.
A lower court ruled against the villagers, arguing that they had bought the land from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, so their claim was not valid because the Ottomans were occupiers.
The villagers say this is absurd because it means half Albania’s landowners have no rightful claim to their land.
“They (developers) also lack the right building permit. They need permission from the national zoning committee, not the regional one,” said Kumi, who is one of the claimants to the land.
Celaj said the developers had rented the land from the government for 99 years and should a court find other rightful owners, the developers’ contract would be with them. The villagers say whoever builds should first negotiate with them.
Kumi said the villagers had spent Christmas and New Year manning the roadblock after months of skirmishes with police.
Four people, including the village chief and a local construction inspector, were jailed after low-key protests and appear in court on January 19. Fourteen others were held briefly on January 9, when police removed the villagers’ roadblock, Kumi said.
Editing by Adam Tanner and Tim Pearce