By Llazar Semini Associated Press
TIRANA, Albania — 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.