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Albania sacks police chief, vows boost fight against cannabis trade

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania sacked its national police chief on Monday in apparent response to rising international pressure to crack down on the cannabis trade, which rapidly expanded during his watch.

With the European Union dangling the possibility of accession talks in mid-2018, Albania is stepping up efforts to rein in rampant corruption and organized crime including cannabis cultivation.

The Tirana government gave no specific reasons for the dismissal of Haki Cako, but said in a statement it was looking for a replacement able to cope “with a bigger workload at a faster pace”.

Investigators from Italy, a major market for Albanian cannabis trafficked across the Adriatic Sea, said in November that aerial monitoring had turned up just 90 cannabis plots compared with 2,086 in 2016. That prompted Cako to assert that his police had “uprooted cannabis” all over Albania.

But crime gangs continue to smuggle tonnes of cannabis on speedboats across the Adriatic to Italy, a situation the government statement indicated was unacceptable.

“Police work should indispensably be driven toward tangible results to better respond to the requirements of this new stage and the high expectations of the people and our international partners,” the statement said.

Cako had no immediate comment on his firing, which came soon after the start of Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama’s second term and amid an investigation against ex-interior minister Saimir Tahiri for alleged collusion with cannabis traffickers.

Cako was promoted to deputy national police chief in 2014 for his role in ending the open-air growing of cannabis on an industrial scale in the lawless southern village of Lazarat.

But over the next two years cannabis cultivation spread wildly all over the rugged Balkan country under Cako’s watch - he became national police chief when his boss resigned - though police said they had cut down more plants than ever before.

Reporting By Benet Koleka; Editing by Mark Heinrich