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ALBANIA IS HOPING TO FORGE SPECIAL TIES WITH THE U.S.

Once, vintage Chinese military jeeps sputtered down Stalin Boulevard. Today, Albanian soldiers in U.S.-made vehicles speed across a square named for President Woodrow Wilson.

Albania and its army are changing.Four years after the collapse of Albania's xenophobic brand of communism, the fledgling democracy has set its sights on a special relationship with the United States.

Traditionally, Albania has sought a strong partner as defense against its bigger Balkan neighbors. The Communists flirted first with Tito's Yugoslavia, then the Soviet Union and finally China. The current president, Sali Berisha, wants his impoverished country squarely under the Pentagon's security umbrella.

Mindful of Albania's strategic location in the Balkans, U.S. military leaders have been warm to the overture, although they aren't willing to move as fast as Berisha would like.

The Americans have given Albania more than $100 million in military vehicles, uniforms, communication equipment and medical gear since Berisha's 1992 election.

Albania is about to buy its first batch of sophisticated U.S. military hardware, and it is pressing to play host to U.S. bases. Diplomats say it has quietly slipped in near the front of the queue for NATO membership.

Albania's defense minister, Safet Zhulali, said expansion by NATO "would free the Balkans from being caught between East and West."

One potential stumbling block is the West's concern about how this nation of 3.3 million people deals with the problems of ethnic Albanians in other Balkan countries.

The 6 million ethnic Albanians in the southern Balkans are split among three countries - Albania, Serbia's volatile Kosovo province and Macedonia. Albanians in Kosovo are pressing for independence, and some in Macedonia complain they are mistreated.