A tourist boat heads to the island of Sazan, some 140 km southwest of Albania's capital Tirana, on July 31, 2015. (Agence France-Presse)

A tourist boat heads to the island of Sazan, some 140 km southwest of Albania’s capital Tirana, on July 31, 2015. (Agence France-Presse)

SAZAN, ALBANIA: 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.

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.

“We only thought about the war, 24 out of 24 hours. The psychological pressure was enormous,” recalls 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.

Three years later, a break up with Moscow ended this project but only to be reopened for a new alliance with China that lasted for years.

The bunkers and tunnels were designed to withstand a nuclear attack, a testament of the communist regime’s fear of a western invasion.

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