Albania's interior minister Xhafaj resigns

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania’s Interior Minister Fatmir Xhafaj resigned on Saturday and will be replaced by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s security advisor Sander Lleshi, a former army general, according to statements from Xhafaj and Rama.

FILE PHOTO: Albanian Interior Minister Fatmir Xhafaj speaks during a news conference in Tirana, Albania, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Florion Goga/File Photo

Xhafaj’s resignation came as a surprise a week after police arrested 27 people in a major drug rings crackdown and two former ruling Socialist lawmakers over graft, but failed to catch a drug lord who has eluded arrest for two years now.

In his announcement, Rama recognized Xhafaj’s contribution in “paving the road” but asked for “more speed and significant results” from Lleshi, a fluent German speaker trained in Germany and the United States.

A NATO member and a candidate to join the European Union, Albania has been told repeatedly it needs to fight organized crime, including drug rings, and corruption, if it wants to join the bloc.

Throughout his 19 months in office, Xhafaj was under pressure from the opposition to quit over his half-brother’s drug conviction in Italy in early 2000, but Rama stood by him.

Xhafaj’s brother flew to Italy to face justice three weeks after the minister’s appointment and began serving a sentence of more than seven years in prison.

Rama appeared impatient to see Xhafaj’s back, however. He announced the resignation on social media early on Saturday, while Xhafaj took several hours to admit it, telling reporters he was spending time with his family.

“The challenges were very big and I am proud ... we managed to bolster law and order and security, achieving successes considered impossible for years,” he said in a statement.

Xhafaj came to the job after his contribution to a crucial reform of the judiciary intended to clean it of corrupt judges apparently earned him the backing of Western diplomats.

The opposition Democratic Party head Lulzim Basha said his departure was “a milestone in their battle to clean politics of crime” since Xhafaj was “the only interior minister in Europe with a drug trafficker for a brother”.

Xhafaj’s predecessor Saimir Tahiri also quit so he could be investigated for alleged links to a cannabis smuggling ring ran by some of his distant cousins. This led many to question why Rama could not pick a “clean” interior minister.

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Clelia Oziel