Photo: Arben Celi/ Reuters
Police reinforcements were on Tuesday rushed to a lawless Albanian village notorious for its production of billions of pounds' worth of marijuana following a fierce battle involving mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The battle erupted on Monday when hundreds of Albanian police backed by armoured vehicles tried to surround Lazarat, a village run by drugs gangs that had become a virtual no-go area for the forces of law and order in the two decades since Communist rule came to an end.
Remarkably, no one was hurt in the hours-long clash, despite the drug growers firing heavy machine guns, RPGs and even mortars at security forces.
But it came just days before the European Union's 28 member states decide whether to confirm Albania as a candidate to eventually join the bloc, amid concerns over the country's organised crime gangs and law and order issues.
Albanian police officers leave the village of Dervican near Lazarat, a village known as Europe's cannabis capital, south of the Albanian capital Tirana (Gent Shkullaku/ Getty)Lazarat, a major marijuana-producing centre, lies about 130 miles south of the capital, Tirana.
Gangs based in and around the village of 5,000 people are believed to produce about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth about 4.5 billion euros – roughly half of the small Balkan country's GDP.
Over the past few weeks, Albanian authorities have launched a nationwide operation to destroy the cannabis plantations.
Around 500 armed police surrounded the village on Monday after a smaller force was repelled over the weekend.
They exchanged fire with an estimated 30 armed men hiding in a four-storey building.
Some of the gunmen were eventually forced to flee Lazarat and headed for a nearby mountain.
But several hours later, sporadic gunfire was still heard in the village.
Saimir Tahiri, Albania's interior minister, urged the remaining gunmen in the village to disarm and surrender.
Albanian police forces surround the village of Lazarat, known as Europe's cannabis capital, south of the Albanian capital Tirana (Gent Shkullaku/ Getty)
"We are determined to walk the path of justice and rule of law," he said in Tirana. "I call upon those in Lazarat who have taken up arms against the police ... to drop their weapons and let the police do their job. Otherwise, the force of law will act like never before."
On Tuesday, the authorities announced they had sent hundreds more police to help subdue the village.
The Albanian police said they were increasing their numbers on the outskirts of Lazarat from 500 to 800 after sporadic shooting continued overnight, wounding a special forces police officer.
Authorities said six men were arrested on suspicion of participating in the shoot-out and of attacking a local television news crew.
Police destroyed around 11,000 cannabis plants up to three feet high and found sacks of dried marijuana ready for shipment, a statement said.
"State police are determined to reach their goal and mission to free the village from this criminal group which has terrorised it for years," the police said.
The village has been outside government control since the late 1990s and has grown into a drug dealers' fiefdom.
In 2004, shots were fired at an Italian drug-spotting helicopter, forcing it to withdraw from the area.