Accused Albanian drug lord, Klement Balili, surrenders to police

TIRANA, Jan 15 - One of Albania's most wanted drug traffickers surrendered to police on Tuesday after almost three years on the run on charges of smuggling narcotics by neighboring Greece.

Klement Balili had avoided capture since May, 2016 thanks to his network of support in the southern coastal area of Sarande and alleged political ties, casting doubt on NATO member Albania's resolve to fight big crime bosses.

In February, 2017, pressure from its Western allies forced Albania to convene its security council to make Balili's seizure a priority since his drug ring had spread to the territory of neighboring countries and NATO allies.

Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj told reporters Balili's arrest meant Albanian police, who had mounted more than a dozen failed operations to catch him, had made an "historic leap" in overcoming their "mindset failure" to catch big crime bosses.

"His surrender was the result of a deep, wide and complex operation in cooperation with Albania's partners," Lleshaj said.

Asked what Balili had been offered to get him to surrender, Lleshaj said: "The assurance of a fair legal process."

Constant appeals by former U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu to catch Balili pushed Prime Minister Edi Rama to call on police to make sure he was in custody before Lu's replacement arrived.

Balili denied any involvement and appeared publicly when Greek police, working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, accused him of transporting 700 kilos of cannabis into Greece. He was soon on the run, however.

Balili's Greek lawyer alleged that Greece had built a case against him out of thin air and his Albanian lawyer Theodhori Sollaku said on Tuesday that the evidence was dubious.

The 48-year-old Balili had headed the road-building and transport department of Sarande, where he also owned a seaside luxury hotel and had a stake in another, until early 2016.

He had political ties with the Socialist Integration Movement (SIM) party, which was a junior partner in the ruling coalition led by the Socialist Party from 2013-17, when Rama ditched them to win a mandate without allies.