By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - An elite police officer in Albania was shot dead and two were wounded on Wednesday, triggering a renewed security crackdown in a region long notorious for industrial-scale production of cannabis.
Albanian police said the officers came under fire when they stopped a car containing armed men in the Lazarat region in the south of the Balkan country, and that the fatal shots were fired from a nearby house.
"Numerous police troops, as well as General Police Director Haki Çako, are (now) on their way to Lazarat," a statement by the national police said. No further details were immediately available.
Police for years steered clear of the village of Lazarat, a bastion of drug producers who churned out vast quantities of cannabis for export across Europe, until June 2014 when they staged a major operation to stamp out the industry.
Over a five-day period, police reported destroying more than 80,000 marijuana plants and saplings and over 23 metric tonnes of cannabis. They seized 11 heavy weapons, thousands of explosives and bullets and 10 grenades. Fourteen people were arrested and 130 houses searched.
The scale of the drug production -- worth an estimated 4.5 billion euros $5.03 billion) in 2013, according to Italian financial police -- was long an embarrassment for Albania, which is a NATO member now aspiring to join the European Union.
There is believed to be little serious cannabis production in Lazarat now, but the region retains a reputation for defiance of law-enforcement authorities.
Local media said the gunmen who fired at the police officers on Wednesday may have been the ones who held off police for several days during last year's crackdown before slipping away under cover of night by trekking over a mountain.
The elite police unit had gone to Lazarat on Wednesday to support local police officers after they were shot at overnight.
The dead officer was named as 31-year-old Ibrahim Basha, a former army special trooper who had recently joined the elite police force. His wounded colleagues were expected to survive.
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(Writing by Benet Koleka; Editing by Matt Robinson and Mark Heinrich)