Albania police besiege Europe's 'cannabis capital'

TIRANA - Hundreds of Albanian police tightened their siege on a village known as Europe's cannabis capital on Tuesday as gun battles between security forces and suspected drug dealers raged for a second day.

Police who tried to enter the southern village of Lazarat on Monday to destroy a huge drugs stockpile were repelled by heavy weapons fire, including anti-tank missiles and grenades. One officer has been wounded.

Some 800 security personnel dressed in bulletproof vests and backed by armoured vehicles surrounded Lazarat after fierce shootouts with local traffickers.

"We urge the traffickers to cease fire and hand over their weapons," police chief Artan Didi said, adding that residents had been "taken hostage by a group of criminals".

Police said they had arrested six people suspected of firing at security forces and had destroyed more than 10,000 cannabis plants around Lazarat.

"We are determined to continue the operation and destroy all cannabis plants," a police spokeswoman said.

Sporadic shooting continued on Tuesday, a resident told AFP.

Italian police say Lazarat, 240 kilometres (150 miles) south of Tirana, produces 900 tonnes of cannabis each year. The drugs are worth some 4.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) - equivalent to almost half of Albania's gross domestic product.

Albania is Europe's leading cannabis producer, despite efforts by authorities, who claim to destroy between 90,000 and 130,000 cannabis plants every year.

On Monday, village gunmen attacked a journalist, cameraman and a driver working for Albanian television, torching their vehicle and confiscating their possessions.

Lazarat mayor Dashnor Aliko told reporters he was negotiating with the traffickers to turn themselves in.