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Derelict Albanian military island opens to tourism

Gent Shkullaku / AFP |Tourism chief Auron Tare by a destroyed building on the island of Sazan

Former communist Albania's most secretive military base, the strategic Sazan island on the Adriatic Sea, has opened its derelict bunkers and tunnels, hoping to turn it into a top tourist draw.

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Situated at the entrance of Vlora bay in southwestern Albania and at a strategic point on the Otranto canal that separates the Adriatic and Ionian seas, the tiny island of only a dozen square kilometres (4.5 square miles) was through centuries coveted by various armies: Roman, Ottoman, Greek, Italian and even German.

At the end of World War II, it fell under the control of Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha, who in the 1950s opened it to Soviet allies eager to survey the entire Mediterranean from there.

The 3,000 soldiers who were stationed on the island lived under constant fear of an attack, but the worst enemy they ever had to face was loneliness.

"We only thought about the war, 24 out of 24 hours. The psychological pressure was enormous," said 61-year old Mihal Lule, who for 17 years lived on the small mountainous isle during the 1945-1990 communist dictatorship.

"From there I could control the Mediterranean to Gibraltar," the Cold War era Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously said in 1958 during a visit to the Pashaliman submarine base, also in Vlora Bay, where he hoped to install long-range missiles and warships.

Under Sazan's pine and fig trees are some 3600 one-man nuclear bunkers, a testament to Albania’s Cold War paranoia.

The island is also host to kilometres of tunnels and underground facilities including a cinema, a school and a hospital.

The first tourists have already visited Sazan, which is smothered with pine, oleander and fig trees and ringed by turquoise waters.

"Sazan will offer tourists the mysteries of the communist Albania and the rich historic and cultural heritage of the Mediterranean at the time," said local tourism chief Auron Tare.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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