A boy checks out armored police cars in the village of Lazarat, south of the Albanian capital Tirana, on June 16, 2014. Suspected drug traffickers fired heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at Albanian police attempting to enter a village renowned for its mass cannabis production, authorities said. (Gent Shkullaku, AFP/Getty Images)

Police storm village in Albania known for $6 billion in annual pot production

TIRANA, Albania — Hundreds of Albanian police, backed by armored vehicles, stormed a lawless southern village Monday after suspected marijuana growers allegedly fired rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns at officers during a drug raid.

Police said no one was hurt in the hostilities in and around Lazarat, a major marijuana-producing center about 230 kilometers (140 miles) south of the capital, Tirana.

A police spokeswoman said officers managed to take control of the village of 5,000 people after exchanging fire with a nearly 30 armed men hiding in a four-story building complex. Laura Totraku said the gunmen fled Lazarat and were heading for a nearby mountain, pursued by police.

Gangs based in Lazarat are believed to produce about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth about 4.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) — roughly half of the small Balkan country’s GDP.

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Around 500 lightly-armed police, including special forces officers and the country’s police chief, surrounded the village overnight after a smaller force was repelled over the weekend by small-arms fire that injured one villager.

Albania’s private A1 channel said its TV crew covering the Lazarat operation was robbed at gunpoint by masked men who also burnt their vehicle.

Over the past few weeks, Albanian authorities have launched a nationwide operation to uproot cannabis plantations.

Marijuana-growing gangs in the village have long seen themselves as beyond the reach of the law. In 2004, shots from the village forced an Italian drug-spotting helicopter to make a hasty retreat.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com