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PREGNANCY OF MULE SETS OFF A FRENZY

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Has Jakup Muzhaqi's miraculous mule signaled the apocalypse? Does the devil live in its stomach? Will the town policeman carry out its death sentence?

The mule's reported pregnancy - highly unusual for the usually sterile hybrid - plunged this isolated village into a flurry of speculation and debate.Town elders worry the mule's Nov. 18 miscarriage could signal a looming catastrophe. Most of the 530 villagers would like to see the evil omen removed. But nobody dares to kill the mule because, they fear, that might make things worse.

So, since the event, villagers have been gathering in Muzhaqi's garden to debate what to do with the unnamed beast.

The story of his mule shows the depth of superstition that exists in Europe's most backward nation, where 3.2 million people barely subsist in a country of few paved roads, widespread unemployment and mostly ramshackle housing.

Some 65 percent of the population lives in the countryside, in isolated villages like Vilan, where the next town is a five-hour walk away. Few in rural areas go past elementary school.

There, the natural world becomes a repository for signs to interpret. An incessantly clucking hen, for instance, means rain is in sight. The blood of a slaughtered animal must be trickled on the foundation bricks of a new house. If a hen crows, its head must be cut off or a family member will die.

In a place like Vilan, 60 miles southeast of Tirana, a mule is a valuable thing.

The offsprings of male donkeys and female horses, mules are slower but more surefooted than horses. They have proved their endurance as pack and draft animals since prehistoric times. They also are sterile.

Until Nov. 18, those were undeniable facts here. Then villagers told visiting reporters their story.

It was about 6 p.m. After a day of plodding in the field, Muzhaqi's mule started braying with pain.

"I thought it had developed colic and gave it an aspirin injection," recalled Shyqyri Cekani, who had a year of veterinary school. "I hadn't finished when something covered with what looked like white plastic fell to the ground."

It looked like a tiny lamb, just over 3 pounds, whose head and legs could be distinguished.

"It scared everyone, so we threw it to the dogs," Shyqyri said.

Muzhaqi is reluctant to kill his only mule, which is worth about $400, a fortune in rural Albania and 10 times the average salary.