By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) – The Albanian government ordered troops to guard the country’s international airport and criticised the Chinese company that runs the facility on Wednesday, a day after armed robbers seized bags of cash that were about to be loaded onto a plane.
The government would “no longer allow the security of citizens and the country’s image to suffer”, Defence Minister Olta Xhacka said of Tuesday’s robbery, which was the second time in three years the Tirana airport has been targeted in a heist.
She joined Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj in accusing Tirana International Airport (TIA), run by financial firm China Everbright Limited (CEL), of “persistent irresponsibility”.
“I have ordered members of the military police and the troops of the special army unit to be stationed along the security fence of the ‘Mother Teresa’ airport,” Xhacka said.
CEL rejected Lleshaj’s allegations of negligence, including that it had failed to notify the police of the break-in. The company said it had stepped up security measures since a similar robbery at the airport in June 2016.
“The airport does not belong to the Chinese, it belongs to all Albanians. It is a part of Albania’s territory and is protected by law by the State Police, as is every inch of this country,” CEL said in a statement.
National police director Ardi Veliu announced police were taking over more duties at the airport.
In Tuesday’s heist, a group of at least four robbers smashed through a wire and iron airport gate in a van, images showed. They drove away with what the local media has said was a haul of seven bags containing 10 million euros ($11.27 million) belonging to four banks. The cash was about to be loaded into an Austrian Airlines plane to be flown to Vienna.
Lufthansa’s Austrian Airlines, a unit of Deutsche Lufthansa, , did not say how much money was stolen, but said it was halting its transport of valuable freight from Tirana.
“As an immediate measure, from now on no value freight will be transported on this route,” the airline said.
Raiffeisen Bank International said it was affected, but also did not provide any details about the amount.
Police said one of the robbers was killed on Tuesday in an exchange of gunfire while the gang was changing cars and police were in pursuit. His accomplices fled and are at large. No one else was hurt.
The dead man, identified as Admir Murataj, was the mastermind of at least four robberies of bank money transports since 2015 and was the leader of Tuesday’s heist, officials said.
Police said he was a convict who escaped from jail in Greece in 2013 and kept staging armed bank robberies there before starting to hit banks in Albania.
(Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Frances Kerry)