LAZARAT, Albania (AP) — About 400 Albanian police officers, backed up by two army helicopters, started to move late Wednesday into a major illegal marijuana-growing village after gunmen there fatally shot one policeman and wounded two others.
Local media said gunfire was heard coming from the southern village of Lazarat throughout the day, but an Associated Press photographer heard no shooting in the evening.
Police spokesman Gentian Mullai said officers had identified 21 suspects and called on them to surrender, also asking residents and authorities to cooperate.
“If the armed group responds by shooting, police will eliminate them,” a police statement said.
Police “are keeping under control an isolated armed group in the village,” said Enerjeta Camani, police spokeswoman in nearby Gjirokastra.
Police officers said they were targeting a couple of houses near the place where their colleagues were shot early Wednesday, believing the suspects were there.
Lazarat, which is 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Tirana, has been cordoned off, with checkpoints set up for everyone going in or out, while journalists have been kept outside the village.
Police spokesman Ardi Bita said the shots were fired by a suspected criminal gang from a house in Lazarat, which has about 5,000 residents.
Lazarat came to prominence in 2014 after a five-day police siege in which special police forces with armored personnel carriers came under intense fire with automatic weapons and rocket launchers from local homes. The raid destroyed 102 tons of marijuana and 530,000 marijuana plants with an estimated market value at the time of 6.4 billion euros ($8.2 billion) — more than 60 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product.
Wednesday’s shootout came after police stationed in the village stopped a car transporting weapons, seizing two rifles and one automatic rifle and arresting the driver. Police had launched an operation in the morning to arrest suspects who had shot at but did not injure policemen stationed in the village overnight.
Seven people have been questioned.
Prime Minister Edi Rama, along with his interior and health ministers, visited the injured police officers in a hospital in Tirana, where they had been airlifted by helicopter. Both had non-life threatening injuries.
Police identified the dead policeman as Ibrahim Basha.
“We are in mourning … and I believe every Albanian who values the honesty, courage and service of the state police is in mourning too,” Rama told journalists.
The U.S. Embassy in Tirana also condemned the violence against police and expressed condolences over the death of Basha, who had been deployed with NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The Delegation of the European Union to Albania also saluted “the courage of the Albanian police officers who are serving their country by taking forward the fight against drug trafficking.”
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana.