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Gun Battles Rage In Europe's 'Cannabis Capital'
Police fighting gangsters in a village dubbed Europe's 'cannabis capital' have seized and destroyed more than 10 tons of the drug.
The traffickers have been using heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells and machine guns, in their efforts to repel an ongoing operation by hundreds of officers to drive them out.
Around 800 police wearing bulletproof vests and backed by armoured vehicles, were deployed around the Albanian village of Lazarat as clashes continued for a third day.
The traffickers have barricaded themselves in several houses in the centre and were using Kalashnikovs to fire at security forces.
Witnesses said many villagers had burned cannabis plants to destroy evidence against them before they fled Lazarat, which has turned into the continent's largest illegal marijuana producer in recent years.
One officer and two civilians were wounded in gun battles, as a police spokeswoman said security forces had taken control of a large part of the village.
So far they have seized and burned 11.3 tons of marijuana packed in sacks and 70,000 plants and destroyed two laboratories.
Police also seized a considerable amount of ammunition from more than 30 houses that were searched.
With TV stations broadcasting the events live, police and authorities urged residents to stay indoors and warned others to stay away from the area, 140 miles south of the capital, Tirana.
Police chief Artan Didi told reporters that officers were targeting a "very well-structured and organised criminal group that is keeping the village in its claws".
Lazarat, with a population of 5,000, is believed to produce about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth 4.5bn euros (£3.6bn) - just under half of the Balkan country's GDP.
Authorities used to leave the drug gangs alone, as police visits were usually met with gunfire.
But a new Socialist government came to power last year and is aiming to stamp out the marijuana economy as it seeks to become a member of the European Union.