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The Albanians are the people of the western Balkan peninsula, numbering today some six million (3,300,000 in Albania; 1,900,000 in Kosovo, including refugees abroad following the conflict of 1998-1999; 500,000 in the Republic of Macedonia; 150,000 in Greece and 50,000 in Montenegro): a further 100,000 Albanians live in southern Italy, mostly in the Calabria region, the majority having arrived since 1991.

Albanians are thought to be descended largely from the region's ancient Illyrian inhabitants, and the Albanian language is thought to be derived from that spoken in the area at the time of the Roman Empire. Islam replaced Christianity as the majority religion during the period of Ottoman Turkish rule from the 15th century until 1912, though Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism are also practised. Among the poorest of the Continent's nationalities, in the latter half of the 20th century Albanians experienced the highest rate of natural population growth of any of Europe's major indigenous ethnic groups, increasing their numbers from 1.5 million around 1900 and fewer than 2.5 million in 1950.

Albanian nationalism

Both Kosovo (legally a province of Serbia though governed since June 1999 by a NATO-led international force) and western Macedonia have in recent years seen armed movements (Kosovo Liberation Army, UCPMB, Macedonian NLA) aimed at the creation of separate Albanian states or unification with Albania proper. (See Kosovo war, History of the Republic of Macedonia)

The fate of Kosovo remains uncertain owing to the reluctance of the Albanian majority to contemplate a restoration of effective Serbian sovereignty and of the United Nations and NATO to separate the territory definitively from the Serbian Republic in contravention of statements made at the time of the 1999 intervention.

The situation in Macedonia seems to have been resolved by giving the Albanians living there greater autonomy and the right to use the Albanian language in education and government.

See also Demographics of Albania, List of Albanians.

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