The Albanian government deployed the military to provide security at the Tirana International Airport on Wednesday. It accused the “Chinese company” that manages the airport for the security failure leading to a robbery by gunmen one day earlier.
On Tuesday, April 9, at least five armed robbers stole several millions of euros from an Austrian Airlines plane, as the plane was being prepared for departure. Airport employees were moving the money from an armored vehicle into the plane cargo hold, when robbers stormed in and stole the money. There are conflicting reports of the amount of money robbed, varying from €2 million to €10 million.
The robbers allegedly came across a police car casually patrolling the area while they were on the run, a few kilometers from the airport. The robbers opened fire, allegedly thinking police had spotted them. One of the robbers was killed in the fire exchange. However, they were able to flee again and dropped the dead body on the way.
Four days after the deadly heist, the government has not made any statement yet to clarify the circumstances of the robbery, number of robbers involved, amount of money stolen, specific security failures and institutions responsible. This has led the media to speculate on each of the issues while the government blames it all on the company managing the airport.
This was the third heist in as many years of money on the way to the Tirana International Airport or inside the airport as it was being loaded into planes. In the two previous cases, robbers have managed to flee with the money and have not been yet been caught.
On government’s order, the Albanian military guards took control over airport security the next day.
Prime Minister Edi Rama and several ministers blamed China Everbright Ltd, which they referred to as “the Chinese company,” for failing to provide security at the airport, and denied any government responsibility whatsoever.
On Wednesday, April 10, one day after the heist, Rama wrote in a tweet: “The Chinese company that bought the airport from the previous one failed in a similar way to provide security.” He praised the work of the State Police and added that the government will not accept any justifications from the company but it will take control of the airport.
Minister of Interior Sandër Lleshaj said that “the Chinese company failed to fulfill its responsibilities in providing security.” He added that the police was not alerted when the heist happened, although it should have been. Lleshaj said that the company charges each passenger with 3 euros only for airport security but it had not invested in security despite government demands to do so. He did not state the amount of money stolen in the heist, which still remains a matter of speculation.
Minister of Defense Olta Xhaçka also blamed the company: “The security mechanisms, which are under the responsibility of the Chinese company […] have totally failed.” She added that criminal charges will be raised against those responsible. Minister Xhaçka also announced that she had ordered the military to guard the airport starting from April 10.
After Rama and his ministers’ statements, Tirana International Airport shpk, owned by China Everbright, claimed that the company alerted the police immediately when robbers broke into the airport. It denied having broken regulations and dismissed government allegations for its security failure. The company stated that responsibility for such major security breaches lay with the Albanian police. It also added that the company had not released any statement before due to the ongoing investigations.
Responding to government’s labelling of it as “the Chinese company,” it added: “The airport doesn’t belong to the Chinese, it belongs to all Albanians.”
President Ilir Meta also held a press statement, in which he reminded the public that the National Security Council headed by him had demanded from state institutions last year to make sure to provide security at the airport, by also giving clear instructions on what needed to be done. Two similar heists had already happened by then. President Meta said that such breach of security was unacceptable for a NATO member country. He called for investigations into every related institution and person.
On Thursday, the government stepped up its harsh rhetoric against the company. Minister of Infrastructure and Energy Belinda Balluku said that the “Chinese company’s” public reaction was “irresponsible” and that they [the compnay] were not aware of the damage they had caused. She added that the government won’t wait any longer for “the Chinese owners and their acrobat managers to learn the laws.” Balluku blamed the company for high tariffs and said that she received messages from citizens on a daily basis regarding “the Chinese flags flying [at the airport] as if we were in Beijing, which is the peak of [their] revolting cynicism.”
Balluku clarified that Albanian authorities had repeatedly demanded the company to improve the security fence around the airport. The company had chosen to invest in more parking lots to increase its profits instead, according to the minister. Balluku concluded that the military will now take care of the airport security.
Opposition’s leader Lulzim Basha criticized the government for attempting to avoid the responsibility by blaming the company managing the airport.
He said that the repeated heist (the third in the last three years) is a sign of the failure of the government to provide security and implement its own decisions. According to Basha, the police are responsible to secure the safe transportation of cash cargos. He added that the mastermind of the heist, who had allegedly committed a similar robbery in 2016, had been on the run since then and the police had not been able to arrest him.
Basha said that the rise in the number of robberies throughout the country is because Albania under Prime Minister Edi Rama is governed by crime.
President Ilir Meta demanded information from the chief of army staff regarding the legal justification for the deployment of the military as airport security.