The Reparti i Neutralizimit te Elementit te Armatosur (“Unit for the Neutralization of the Armed Element”), commonly known by its acronym RENEA, is the main Albanian counter-terrorist and critical incident response unit. The force was constituted the early 1990s in response to the growing crime levels in the country after the fall of communism. RENEA’s responsibilities are only rescue operations, counter-terrorism and response to particularly violent forms of crime. Since 1991, the unit has lost three men in action and more than forty wounded. Their skills are highly regarded and well thought-of inside Albania and in the West.
Following the emergence of democracy in Albania after 1990 and in order to eradicate all semblances to and associations with the communist state, many investigators, attorneys and police officers were simply dismissed. This confused situation soon allowed organized and individual crime to flourish to the point that it soon became the norm of everyday life. Kidnapping, extortion, prostitution, murder and illegal trafficking were at an all-time high, and to make things worse, the Albanian fledgling democracy did not have the legal, administrative and organizational experience to combat these problems — in fact its infrastructure was almost non-existent. During communism, the force that was entrusted with CT and other special missions was Unit 326, but because of its role in suppressing public unrest during the popular uprising against communism, it had been neglected.
The new public order authorities recognized the need for a small professional force, and after exhaustive trials and training finally established what subsequently came to be known as RENEA. It was also known as Unit 88. It was composed of eighty members, or operatives, who were elected from the 600 original members of Unit 326. The rest of the operators joined subsequent special intervention groups that came into existence.
Loosely translated RENEA stands for “Unit for the Neutralization of the Armed Element”, whereby “RE” accounts for REparti (Unit), “N” for Neutralizimit (Neutralization), “E” for Elementit (Element), and “A” for Armatosur (Armed). A common misconception is the adding of the word “Elimination” to account for the second “E”. Therefore the name would get a new meaning: “Unit for the Elimination and Neutralization of the Armed Element”.
Unit Composition and Organization
It is thought that the unit is made up of anywhere from 120 to 200 operatives. The real number is a highly guarded secret. Initially, its organization was military in nature, dividing each team in groups of four, after the reputable British SAS system. In case of an open conflict, the police were expected to assume military duties. However, after the administrative reform of the Albanian Police, such duties were excluded from the police curriculum. Consequently, even RENEA was reorganized, this time modeling itself after sister units such as GSG-9, GIS, NOCS, GIGN etc. The tactics are still primarily SAS-based, but not the actual duties. The unit is composed of negotiators, infiltrators, divers, rock-climbers, sappers, snipers and a small nucleus of logistics operatives.
Training and Selection
The selection process is held only once a year and lasts twelve weeks. About 90 per cent of candidates come from other branches of the police and the National Guard, while the rest are military. The military candidates that pass selection must also complete a six-month course on jurisprudence. The maximum age for selection is 26 years and candidates are expected to have been members of their respective previous units for no less than two years. The first two weeks are called the “shake-down”, in which almost everyone takes part. Only the negotiators and part of the logistics group (not including drivers) are exempted. Candidates undergo long and complicated psychological and durability tests designed to weed out weaker applicants. “Shake-down” is harsh, consisting of forced marches in full combat gear. True to their SAS origins, the operatives must carry a 35kg (77lb) backpack, AK-47 with eight full magazines, handgun and magazines, knives, gas mask, and radio. Their training routes take part in the worst weather, in some of the toughest terrain that Albania has to offer: in the Northeastern mountain range (the highest peak is Korabi, at 2,751 meters (9,025 feet)), the marshes of Vlora, and the swamps of Durres and Lezha. Approximately 75 per cent of the candidates fail at this initial phase. The last day is reserved for infiltration tests. The candidates that have successfully accomplished the first phase are left helpless in some remote part of Albania, at a safe distance from the capital, with 200 commandos and national guardsmen at their heels. Each is expected to make it back to headquarters in Tirana unintercepted. If they are caught they go home. Training, preparation and tests change according to the whims of the instructors, who are themselves veterans of the unit. They have a reputation for being unyielding and unmerciful.
From 1991, the unit’s negotiators have resolved, without resorting to violence, more than 500 of the 600 cases involving kidnappers and armed occupations. What makes this particularly hard is the existence of Kanun – a collective body of ancient rules passed down orally from one generation to the next for the past millennium. Kanun regulates all aspects of life based on an intricate code, which includes blood feuding and killing for honor. Albania is a tiny country, but there are marked differences between one region and the next – different creeds, traditions, temperaments, dialects and ways of life. These historical differences have left the country isolated, conservative, and patriarchal.
All negotiators must have served for minimum of ten years with the police force and are persons of good temperament and mental balance, with knowledge of all dialects and regional mentalities. They all either have a degree in jurisprudence or have attended the police academy. In addition they complete training courses with the FBI at Quantico and with other United States federal agencies. The negotiators are the first to intervene in cases of an occupation with or without hostages. Nobody intervenes without their explicit order, except in cases when the hostage is already dead. Unfortunately, many homicides and kidnapping in Albania are the results of personal vendettas, which usually means the victim will be killed.
Weaponry and Equipment
The force uses a motley collection of weapons. One of the primary tools is undoubtedly the AK-47, which Albania possesses in abundance. However, the unit is also known to have used the HK G3 7.62 mm NATO. Submachine guns, such as the HK MP5, and shotguns are also highly regarded. The fighting knives are of mixed origins – Camillus, Randall, Gerber, Fox, and an assortment of locally manufactured products depending on the preferences of the operatives themselves. Knife fighting is a considered vital skill and the operatives are highly trained.
The sniper rifle is another tool of the trade for RENEA. Initially, the unit favoured the Russian Dragunov SVD, which, is still in use with the military and various law enforcement agencies. However, the SVD is actually intended to extend the effective range of fire of infantry squads up to 600 meters. Given the delicate nature of their missions, RENEA reverted to “proper” sniper rifles and currently employs SAKO, TRG-22 and TRG-42 rifles.
Search and rescue training is effected with live ammunition. Operatives themselves simulate the hostage. Many special halls and rooms are built to conduct this type of training, and are known as “SAS Rooms” by the unit. In addition, “Good faith shooting” is practiced, which consists of the operatives standing in line facing one another and shooting at targets placed between them. The bulletproof Kevlar vest and helmet are the same as those used by the German GSG-9. They are quite heavy, but they can stop a .30-06 projectile. All types of flash-bang, tear gas and non-lethal ammunition are in the unit’s arsenal. British Avalon anti-gas masks, fireproof clothing (the same as used by the Italian GIS, and NOCS), kneepads, fireproof and tear-proof gloves are also used. Most of the personal equipment is of US origins, but a few Italian types are also in use, such as Vega and Radar.
In special situations the use of machine-guns (Russian 7.62 x 39 mm RPDs and 7.62 x 54 mm R RPKs) is authorized. Beretta 92FSs, Makarovs, TT33s, SIG P226s and P228s, and Israeli Jericho 941s are the favorite sidearms. Glock 17, Walther P99s, CZ75s, H&K USPs, and Walther PPKs can also be found. Vehicles in use include IVECO vans, Mitsubishi SUVs, and a motley collection of armored and private cars, usually donated by sister agencies across Europe. In waterborne operations, Zodiac speedboats confiscated from traffickers are in use. Depending on the circumstances, the Albanian Navy could place at their disposal various types of boat and other craft. Mil Mi-8, Puma and Bell helicopters are used if a situation demands infiltration by air.
- January 1991: In riots at the Shenkoll (Saint Nicholas) maximum security prison, an armed prisoner took several guards hostage. The attention of national and foreign media was drawn to the crisis. The government of the time sent in Unit 326, the predecessor of RENEA, which quelled the riots using tear gas and rubber bullets, without bloodshed. One operative was lightly wounded in the process.
- November 1992: Albania was plagued by massive floods, which inundated many parts of the country. RENEA distributed food and provided shelter and medical assistance for the uprooted via speedboat and helicopter. One operative (killed in the line of duty in August 1993) selflessly dived into the icy waters and saved three drowning shepherd.
- April 1996: In a diplomatic high-level meeting between the Italian president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Sali Berisha in Tirana, a deranged individual armed with a grenade with the safety pin removed sought to approach the two presidents. The two officials were immediately taken away from the scene, while a RENEA negotiator steadily approached the perpetrator and made contact by twisting his arm, taking the grenade from his hand and putting the safety pin back onto the weapon.
- January 1997: A female student in depressive state roamed the streets of Tirana with a grenade in her hand. A RENEA operator approached her and defused the situation without bloodshed.
- 1997: During the crisis that threw Albania in a state of anarchy as a result of the collapse of various pyramid schemes, where three quarters of the population lost their savings, RENEA was entrusted with the task of safeguarding the monetary and gold reserves of the National Bank and other financial institutions. RENEA accomplished the task by removing all valuables from the facilities in unarmed IVECO vans. No money was lost in the process. This operation, at a time when many police officers were killed by angry civilians, is remembered by the unit as Operation Kamikaze. During the same year, 90 per cent of all police stations were looted and taken over by armed individuals. RENEA retook possession of these facilities, recalled all officers to work, and re-established communications and security systems. In many cases, the operatives repaired all damaged property themselves.
- 1998–1999: During these years RENEA was engaged in fights with multiple gangs across the nation, which, as a result of the previous year’s anarchy, were armed with weaponry ranging from personal equipment to artillery and anti-aircraft batteries looted from military depots.
- July 1998: The unit conducted a CT mission by arresting five Egyptian terrorists connected to Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda.
- March 1999: Three armed criminals murdered three police officers and four civilians. Subsequently they barricaded themselves into a house, taking hostage a couple and their 7 month-old daughter. A RENEA team went in, freed the hostages, and in the process killed the criminals.
- May 1999: An Albanian emigrant in Greece, disgruntled over payment with his employer, after complained to the Greek authorities and was escorted to the border and deported to Albania. After buying an AK-47 and two grenades, he returned to Greece and went to Thessaloniki, where he took hostage a bus carrying fourteen people. The Greek government gave him the $250,000 that he had asked for and allowed him to enter Albania with his hostages. Close to Tirana, the negotiators sought to convince him to let the hostages free. He wounded one and was killed in return by a RENEA sniper. The wounded man was killed by the Albanian police while he was trying to escape. The police mistook him for the terrorist.
- 1999: Zani Caushi, leader of one of the most ruthless Albanian gangs, was arrested. The same fate befell the senior leaders of many other gangs.
- 1999: A gang that had held hostage and then released a senior police official was arrested.
- 1999: Acting on the request of the Italian government, an individual suspected of the murder of three police officers in Udine was arrested. Although exonerated of this murder, the individual remained behind bars due to other criminal activities.
- 2000–2001: In three separate operations, three individuals sought for the murder of Azem Hajdari, an Albanian MP, were arrested. This mission was important because Hajdari was one of the leaders of the opposition at the time.
- February 2001: During Operation Journey Italia, RENEA took credit for destroying an Albanian-American gang, which, in partnership with the Medellín drug cartel and Italian and Albanian mafia, was exploring the possibility of turning Albania into a major international launching pad for the trafficking of cocaine. RENEA arrested all suspects, including a former senior police officer.
- January 2002: RENEA destroyed a gang of narcotics traffickers, which was trafficking than 100kg (202.5 lb) heroin per trip. More than 1,000 kg (2,205 lb) of pure heroin was confiscated.
- 1990–2004: During the last decade and a half, RENEA has provided escort security to such high-level officials as: former U.S. Secretaries of State James Baker and Madeleine Albright, Pope John Paul II, current British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, and various Italian and Greek prime ministers, in addition to Albanian officials and international officials in government missions in Albania.