TIRANA, Jan 18 (Reuters) - A Tirana court jailed 10 cannabis growers on Monday for shooting at police to try to stop a 2014 raid that ultimately quelled an outlaw region of Albania and helped the Balkan state clinch the status of candidate for European Union membership.
Built on a high mountain slope near the border with Greece, the village of Lazarat had been beyond state control since repelling a police assault in the late 1990s, evolving into a centre of almost industrial-scale cannabis cultivation.
Gate Mahmutaj, a ringleader of the Lazarat growers whose 102 metre (111.5 yards) cannabis storehouse turned into a barricade against police assaults, was given 18 years in jail.
The other gang members received prison terms of between two and 17 years. The sentences are expected, however, to be reduced by one third because all defendants pleaded no contest to the evidence against them.
Mahmutaj was convicted of creating a criminal group, resisting police, cultivating cannabis and possessing weapons, but acquitted of shooting with intent to kill. There were no casualties in the four-day standoff with police in June 2014.
Police told Reuters at the time they were targeted with an anti-tank shell although it did not explode.
They destroyed 71 tonnes of cannabis, 133,567 cannabis plants, five kg (11 pounds) of heroin, four tonnes of cannabis seed and 17 liters of cannabis oil after the raid last June. About 500 weapons, some heavy, and a quarter of a million bullets were also seized.
Albania earned EU praise and candidate status last year after cracking down on widespread cannabis cultivation, but organised crime and corruption remain serious problems.
Slovenia and Croatia are the only countries in the western Balkans region to have joined the EU. Others, including Serbia and Macedonia, have lagged behind due to strife with neighbours after the 1990s disintegration of Yugoslavia and a failure to adequately improve rule-of-law and carry out economic reforms. (Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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