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Albanian prosecutors seek arrest of ex-minister on corruption, drug charges

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albanian prosecutors asked parliament on Thursday to remove the immunity of former interior minister Saimir Tahiri to allow them to investigate him on corruption and drug trafficking charges, the prosecution said.

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The measure is a blow to the Socialist government of Prime Minister Edi Rama since Tahiri, interior minister for four years until March this year, led a drive to reform the police force and was initially successful in ending cannabis production in the south in 2014.

Prosecutors say they want to investigate him following the arrest in Italy this week of an Albanian, Moisi Habilaj, on drug charges.

Habilaj, in phone conversations tapped by Italian police and released to Italian and Albanian media, said that Tahiri regularly made large sums of money from drug payments.

In an emotional defence made on Wednesday to parliament, Tahiri said he had made the mistake of selling his car to Habilaj, a distant relative, but otherwise denied any links with him. He said he was the victim of disinformation spread by criminals.

Prosecutors from the serious crimes division asked parliament to strip Tahiri of his immunity, which he still holds as a member of parliament, so they can prosecute him for drug trafficking and corruption based on a joint investigation with Italian authorities.

Parliament could make a decision in the next 24 hours.

Prime Minister Rama, in his second month of a second four-year term, said he hoped Tahiri would prove he had no links to the traffickers and that justice would shed light on the matter.

Though Tahiri was credited with energetic anti-drugs action in 2014, he is widely seen as having failed in 2015 and 2016 to stop Albania from becoming one of the biggest open air cultivators of cannabis in Europe.

Rama did not pick Tahiri, one of his closest associates, for a ministerial role in his second term.

The affair has handed ammunition to the opposition Democratic Party which sees itself as vindicated in its persistent denunciation of the cannabis trade and the links of drug traffickers with the police and is now pressing Rama to resign.

Early on Thursday, reacting to the arrests in Italy, police in the southern region of Vlore seized almost four tonnes of cannabis in the house of an associate of the Habilaj group.

Italian police had been monitoring the Habilaj clan for four years when they arrested Moisi Habilaj this week.

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Richard Balmforth