ALBANIAN INVESTIGATORS SEARCH FOR MISSING GOLD

ALBANIAN INVESTIGATORS SEARCH FOR MISSING GOLD

Investigators in Albania, Europe's poorest country, are looking for hundreds of pounds of gold thought to have been stashed away by its former communist rulers or sold to finance their expensive lifestyles.

Officials said Tuesday that a parliamentary commission, set up to probe the mystery, reported that large quantities of gold had vanished. The

commission hopes to gather sufficient evidence to bring corruption charges against those involved.Already 20 members of the country's former communist elite, including the widow of late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, Nexhmije, are awaiting trial on corruption and other charges.

"I'm afraid to say how much is missing, because it is still a mystery," said Teodor Keko, a commission member from the anti-communist Democratic Party. "Examples of victims who had gold confiscated show that it is a huge amount."

Other commission members said their search was hampered by official stalling. They said they were denied access to vital records on the grounds of protecting state secrets.

Mr. Hoxha, who preached equality and class struggle, had luxury mansions throughout the impoverished Balkan country.

At a time when private cars were banned for ordinary Albanians, who also faced chronic shortages of goods, Mr. Hoxha's associates had access to limousines and hard currency for foreign trips.

Mr. Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron fist for 40 years until his death in 1985. The country shook off rigid communism in December 1990 with the introduction of a multiparty political system, but has since suffered intermittent bouts of unrest.

Most Albanians used gold, rather than bank notes, as their currency before World War II.

The parliamentary commission, led by Democrat Blerim Cela, reported that between 1922 and 1925 there were 320 tons of gold in circulation in the country.

Albanian King Zog allegedly took 400 pounds of gold with him when he fled before invading Italian forces in 1939. Retreating German and Italian troops further plundered Albania's gold when they retreated toward the end of the war.

Only 200 pounds of gold remained when the communists under Mr. Hoxha came to power in 1944, but they immediately started refilling the coffers. Rich Albanians were ordered to hand over their gold. Those who refused were jailed or shot.