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Albanian authorities call for capture of cannabis kingpin

By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's Security Council called on law enforcement agencies on Friday to arrest a fugitive cannabis kingpin to quell doubts among NATO partners of the country's resolve to fight the drugs trade.

President Bujar Nishani, chairing the meeting, said the failure to catch Klement Balili had stained Albania's image, as his drugs ring had spread to the territory of neighboring countries and NATO allies.

"Our (NATO) partners and international law-enforcement agencies want this issue solved as soon as possible and have expressed their concerns several times," Nishani said, according to a statement from his office.

"This illustrates the wider dimensions of this case as it damages our national security by spilling over our borders."

Albanian police said in May they wanted to detain Balili in cooperation with Greek police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after he was accused of transporting 700 kilos of cannabis into Greece.

Balili's Greek lawyer Alexios Kugas has said Greece had built a case against him out of thin air.

Police have been effective in catching small players in the cannabis trade, but its bosses appear to go free.

Balili, 46, until early last hear headed the road-building and transport department of the coastal town of Sarande, where he also owned a luxury hotel and had a stake in another.

He had political ties with the Socialist Integration Movement (SIM) party, junior partner in the ruling coalition led by the Socialist Party.

Published photos of Balili dancing late last year at the wedding of the man who replaced him at the road department suggested he had no fear of arrest.

SIM's leader Ilir Meta, parliament speaker, called the Security Council meeting, saying the United States had made clear to him the importance of Albania fighting the drug trade and the image of the country was at stake.

Authorities managed to eradicate the large-scale, open-air cultivation of cannabis in the southern village of Lazarat in 2014.

But in the two years since, open cannabis-growing has spread to an area several times as large. Albania is believed to be the biggest open-air grower of the crop in Europe.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

 

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