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Albanian military sent in to airport after cash heist

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The Albanian Defense Ministry on Wednesday sent in the military to secure the country's only international airport after heavily armed men stole a large sum of cash as it was loaded onto a passenger plane.

Defense Minister Olta Xhacka said Wednesday she has ordered military police and a special air forces battalion to install a security perimeter around Mother Teresa Tirana International Airport. Police head Ardi Veliu also said the airport's internal security would no longer be managed by a private company and would be under the police unit commander there.

The robbers took the cash as it was loaded onto an Austrian Airlines plane on Tuesday afternoon. One robber was shot dead in an exchange of fire with police, but the cash was not recovered. Authorities have not confirmed how much money was taken but Albanian media reports put it at as much as 10 million euros ($11.3 million).

Police said they found the burned-out remains of three vehicles that were used in the heist, in three different locations. The number of robbers was unclear, but was believed to be up to five. The dead man was identified by his wife as Admir Murataj, who had been at large since 2013 after he was one of a dozen Albanians who broke out of a prison in nearby Greece.

Passengers were already on the plane when the robbery took place. Airport officials, who declined to be named due to the ongoing investigation, said the passengers were not in danger. The plane eventually took off several hours late.

Government officials and the company that runs the airport sparred over who was responsible for security. Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj said that "security mechanisms, which are under the concessionary's responsibility, have not functioned," and he threatened that authorities would take "the proper legal and strong measures to guarantee all necessary security parameters and standards."

Hong Kong-based China Everbright Ltd, which has a concession to run the airport until 2027, rejected that as "incorrect," saying it was the responsibility of the police, too. "The airport does not belong to the Chinese. It belongs to all Albanians, it is part of Albania's territory and by law it is protected by the state police," it said in a statement.

Prime Minister Edi Rama, who is on a visit to Monaco, tweeted that "the Albanian state will accept no justification from the company and it will take over the outside perimeter control and the internal security."

Cash is regularly sent out of Albania by private banks because the country's central bank does not accept foreign currency. Austrian Airlines said Wednesday it has temporarily suspended the transportation of cash.

A similar robbery occurred at the airport in 2016. President Ilir Meta called on authorities to find the perpetrators as soon as possible. "I consider such a repeat event ... as a serious threat to national security, public order and the country's image," he said at a news conference.

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