Albania Cracks Down on Heavily-Armed Hotbed of Weed Growers

LAZARAT Albania - The smoke from burning marijuana plants billowed from a dozen houses on Day Five of Albania's most serious move yet against a southern village, armed to the teeth, that has churned out weed on an industrial scale for more than 15 years.

Lazarat has long blighted Albania’s efforts to shed the image of a Balkan badlands since it threw off communism in 1991.

Albanian police seize marijuana in a storage building in the lawless village of Lazarat, 230 kilometers (140 miles) south of capital Tirana on Wednesday. Hektor Pustina / AP

Under the command of a new government sworn in September, police moved into Lazarat on Sunday after coming under fire while spying on the crops planted all along the hillsides the day before. They approached from the south side of the sprawling community, drawing fire from heavy machinegun rounds and anti-tank grenades.

The village of some 5,000 people lives off the proceeds from the marijuana business. Aerial pictures suggest some 60 hectares were cultivated in Lazarat last November with 300,000 plants capable of yielding 500 tonnes of cannabis, or half the total production in Albania.

“This time we’ll put an end to this; law and God are on our side,” a commander of a police special forces unit told his men as a Reuters reporter looked on. The commander declined to be named.

Moving slowly through the village, hundreds of police officers are ripping up crops and setting fire to them, filling the streets with the acrid smell of burning weed.

The interior ministry has advised people to stay indoors during the operation, and police now occupy about 40 percent of the village. Residents follow the drama live on television; some have taken to burning their own marijuana crops to destroy evidence.

Albanian police enter the lawless village of Lazarat, 230 kilometers (140 miles) south of capital Tirana on Wednesday. Hektor Pustina / AP

Summing up their five-day operation, police said they have destroyed 80,000 plants and saplings of weed and 12.8 metric tonnes of cannabis, found two drug-processing laboratories and seized weapons and bullets. Thirteen people have been arrested for planting cannabis and firing weapons at the police. Eighty houses have been searched.

- Reuters