Albanian police storm lawless marijuana village

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Hundreds of Albanian police,
backed by armored vehicles, stormed a lawless southern village Monday
after suspected marijuana growers allegedly fired rocket-propelled
grenades, mortars and machine guns at officers during a drug raid.
Police
said no one was hurt in the hostilities in and around Lazarat, a major
marijuana-producing center 230 kilometers (140 miles) south of the
capital, Tirana.
Gangs based in Lazarat are believed to produce
about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth about 4.5 billion euros
($6.1 billion) — roughly half of the small Balkan country’s GDP. Over
the past few weeks, Albanian authorities have launched a nationwide
operation to uproot the cannabis plantations.
Around 500 lightly
armed police, including special forces officers and the country’s police
chief, surrounded the village of 5,000 overnight after a smaller force
was repelled over the weekend.
A police spokeswoman said officers
took control of the village Monday after exchanging fire with nearly 30
armed men hiding in a four-story building complex. Spokeswoman Laura
Totraku said the gunmen fled Lazarat and headed for a nearby mountain,
pursued by police.
But more than three hours later, sporadic
gunfire was still heard in the village. Authorities advised residents to
stay indoors, while scores of police in body armor guarded the
entrances to Lazarat.
Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri urged the gunmen to disarm and surrender.
Police
destroyed seven plots with some 10,000 cannabis plants and 1,000 young
trees ready to be planted. They also found six burnt barrels believed to
have stored previously collected drugs and "other considerable amounts
of unpacked narcotics."
Albania’s private A1 channel said its TV
crew covering the Lazarat operation was robbed at gunpoint by masked men
who also burnt their vehicle.
Marijuana-growing gangs in the
village have long seen themselves as beyond the reach of the law. In
2004, shots from the village forced an Italian drug-spotting helicopter
to make a hasty retreat.
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Hektor Pustina in Lazarat contributed to this report.