LAZARAT, Albania (AP) — A five-day raid on a lawless southern Albanian village which netted huge amounts of marijuana and heavy weapons shows the government's determination to tackle drug gangs, the prime minister said Friday.
About 800 police besieged the village of Lazarat for days, coming under fire from guns, rocket-propelled grenades and even mortars before being able to move in. Police arrested 15 people; one policeman and three villagers were injured during the battle.
"State police destroyed the 20-year-old taboo of a crime zone that had declared itself a separate republic and turned it into a stamp of shame for Albania," Prime Minister Edi Rama said in the capital, Tirana.
Rama's nine-month-old government has declared its determination to tackle the drug gangs as part of the country's efforts to gain candidate status for entry into the European Union, which has been rejected three times previously.
Smoke from burning marijuana hung above the village Friday, the first day without gunfire since the raid began Sunday night. Authorities said they had destroyed 25.4 tons of marijuana, 91,000 plants and four drug-processing laboratories after searching 162 houses and other buildings. In one home, police found a ton of marijuana in a water tank in an underground storage room.
They said they also seized 20 heavy weapons, tens of thousands of ammunition rounds and scores of rocket-propelled grenades. Albania is a major marijuana-producing country and transit point for moving other drugs from Asia and Latin America to Europe. Gangs based in Lazarat, 230 kilometers (140 miles) south of Tirana, were believed to produce about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth about 4.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) — just under half of the country's GDP, according to the Interior Ministry.
Lazarat grabbed international attention 10 years ago when villagers shot at an Italian police helicopter helping Albanian authorities photograph marijuana plantations. "What could we do? Everybody planted cannabis here," said an elderly woman, who refused to give her name for fear of prosecution.
Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.