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Published: Tuesday June 17, 2014 MYT 2:45:34 AM
Updated: Tuesday June 17, 2014 MYT 2:45:34 AM

Albanian police exchange fire with heavily armed cannabis growers

TIRANA (Reuters) - Police raided a cannabis plantation in a lawless Albanian village on Monday, exchanging fire with locals who responded with anti-tank grenades and heavy machinegun rounds.

There were no casualties in the gun battle in Lazarat, a village some 150 km (100 miles) south of the capital Tirana that has long been a no-go area for police who risk being shot at by drugs gangs.

The raid was launched after police came under fire on Saturday as they started the first serious security operation against the marijuana growers who have made the area their fiefdom in the more than two decades since the end of communist rule.

The security crackdown began just days before the European Union's 28 member states decide whether to confirm Albania as a candidate to eventually join the bloc - something that would require convincing undertakings about the rule of law.

After hours of gunfire since dawn, police appeared to have taken control of the building from which they were fired upon on Saturday, but no arrests were made in the sprawling village that sits on the main road to the Greek border.

Police said they had found 10,000 cannabis plants up to one metre (yard) high, 1,000 saplings ready for planting, sacks with cannabis and six containers with dried cannabis that had been set on fire by the owner to destroy the evidence.

Television footage showed a car belonging to a television station on fire and smoke billowing from what reports said was cannabis.

"We are determined to walk the path of justice and rule of law," Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri told reporters 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."

The village, where thousands of labourers are employed in the drug cultivation, has been beyond government control since the late 1990s.

Dasho Aliko, the village chief, appealed for calm, told villagers to stay indoors and blamed the trouble on a small number of "bad apples" in the local population.

"It is unforgivable that a part of the community stains the whole community," he told local television.

Police said they would chase their attackers into the interior of the village and work to identify and destroy other cannabis plantations in the coming days.

"State police are determined to reach their goal and mission to free the village from this criminal group which has terrorized it for years," they said in a statement.

(Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Robin Pomeroy)

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