19 June 2014
Albanian police have seized more than 10 tonnes of marijuana in a major operation against cannabis growers in the southern village of Lazarat.
Police say about 800 officers were needed to bring most of the village under control by Wednesday evening.
One officer and two civilians were hurt in an exchange of gunfire, they add.
Lazarat produces 900 tonnes of cannabis annually, worth 4.5bn euros ($6.1bn; £3.6bn) – equivalent to almost half of Albania’s gross domestic product.
A week ago, Albania’s interior minister discussed the drug problem with EU envoys. He offered better monitoring of crops and raising awareness among the public as solutions, according to the press.
Police have besieged the village, about 230km (140 miles) south of the capital Tirana, since Monday.
They were met with heavily armed men firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells.
Smoke was seen rising above the village, with some witnesses saying it was caused by locals burning marijuana plants before police closed in.
The operation is still in progress. The alleged gang leader surrendered and 10 others were still holed up inside a house, AFP news agency reports.
Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri told AP news agency that the operation would continue until “every square centimetre in Lazarat is under state control”.
The operation comes as part of the new Socialist government’s campaign to stamp out the marijuana economy in its bid to become part of the European Union.
What the Albanian press say
Albanian newspapers Shqiptarja and Panorama report that one of the drug suspects arrested in Lazarat had been pardoned by the president in 2006 after serving only one month of a 23-year prison sentence for trafficking drugs and wounding a police officer.
Opponents of the government hint at corruption, saying narcotics traffickers need to be ousted from public posts. The chair of the opposition Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, calls the anti-cannabis operation a “pseudo-campaign”, saying “this is not a fight against drugs, but rather a fight for seizing new markets”.
But an editorial in Koha Jone believes the police operation will restore public confidence in the rule of law.