September 12, 2008 / 11:03 PM / 11 years ago

Albanian witness in U.S. arms probe dies suddenly

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania’s government said on Friday it was looking into the sudden death of an arms industry figure who was helping prosecutors investigate a weapons sale to the United States and an explosion that killed 26 people.

Television pictures showed businessman Kosta Trebicka, his head covered in blood, sprawled on his back on a dirt road in a remote area of eastern Albania, where he had been hunting. His off-road car was nearby, and appeared to be damaged.

“We have identified the corpse of citizen Kosta Trebicka,” Interior Minister Bujar Nishani told a late evening news conference. “We shall make public the conclusions of experts as soon as they reach them,” he added.

Nishani was responding to opposition leaders who said the death looked suspicious.

Trebicka was involved in repackaging ageing Chinese ammunition that was being sold from Albania to AEY Inc, a U.S. firm contracted by the Pentagon to supply the Afghan army.

He turned whistleblower after the Albanian defense ministry removed him from the contract and appointed another company in his place.

It was at this second company’s plant in Gerdec, near Tirana, that 26 people were killed in an explosion of artillery shells in March. An Albanian official involved in the sale of ammunition to AEY Inc. and two businessmen are in jail pending trial for multiple murder over the blast.

“We must know as soon as possible whether Kosta Trebicka died accidentally or was killed by criminals that have started hunting the people that know a lot about the Gerdec blast,” the main opposition Socialist Party leader Edi Rama said.

AEY Inc. has been suspended from federal work in the United States after the U.S. Army found out that ammunition it was sourcing from Albania and supplying to Afghanistan consisted of Chinese gun cartridges that were more than 40 years old.

Officers of the company have been charged by a federal grand jury with trying to defraud the U.S. government in a $298 million contract to supply the Afghan army.

Trebicka was to be the key witness in Albania’s investigation into the affair.

Former Albanian defense minister Fatmir Mediu has had his parliamentary immunity quashed to allow prosecutors to determine whether “his actions brought illegitimate profit to the private companies involved in the process of dismantling ammunition.”

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