Unburying guns from Albania’s past.

On 1 April 2021, Albanian police, in an operation code named ‘Complex’, discovered 18 bases in Tirana where military weapons and ammunition were stored and modified.1 The haul included sniper rifles, anti-tank weapons, Kalashnikov automatic rifles, silent pistols, police and military radio scanners, ammunition, explosives and even two armoured cars. According to the police, this arsenal was for sale and was also the source for some weapons that had been used for contract killings in recent years. Five people were arrested, while two others escaped the police. On 10 April, police discovered another cache of guns, grenades, explosives and ammunition in Tirana.2 These operations shows that Albania is still saturated with weapons from arsenals looted during the civil unrest of 1997.

While some of the guns in the arsenals are new and are thought to have been recently smuggled into Albania, most can be traced back to 1997 when, during riots after the collapse of pyramid schemes, 549 775 weapons, more than 839 million pieces of ammunition and 16 million explosives were stolen from state arsenals that had been built up during the Communist period, mostly with weapons from China and Russia.3

In the past two decades, several campaigns have been held to encourage citizens to voluntarily return the guns and ammunition that were looted from the military depots. For example, in 2005, it was reported that nearly 223 000 guns or about 41% of those looted in 1997 were collected along with more than 118 million pieces of ammunition and 1.5 million explosives.4 A smaller-scale amnesty was conducted between January and April 2017, during which time about 1 600 guns, 581 000 pieces of ammunition and 1 ٦٠٠ grenades were turned in.

Nevertheless, this means that there is still a great deal of military hardware in the country that is not under government control. This has led to incidents and accidents. Furthermore, it means that criminal groups have easy access to weapons. Kalashnikovs, especially those produced in China, are highly sought after by the Italian mafia as well as criminal groups in Greece, Montenegro, Kosovo and beyond.5 It is also believed that some of the explosives stolen from military depots in 1997 have been used for mafia-style killings in Albania, although criminal groups tend to favour explosives from Montenegro, which are seen as more efficient.6

A weapons seizure in Albania. Citizens hold vast amounts of materiel stolen from state arsenals built during the Communist period.

A weapons seizure in Albania. Citizens hold vast amounts of materiel stolen from state arsenals built during the Communist period.

Photo: Albanian police

Although there are no official statistics on the matter, it is believed that the vast majority of organized crime-related killings that have taken place in Albania since 1997 have been carried out using guns stolen from the old arsenals.7 A recent example took place in Shkodra on 6 April when a known criminal, Bardhok Pllanaj, was shot dead by around 100 rounds from two Kalashnikov-style automatic rifles.8 In other cases, assassinations have been carried out using sniper rifles, pistols with suppressors or explosives.

The government strategy and roadmap of 2019–2024 for the control of small arms and light weapons, as well as ammunition and explosives (which is part of regional efforts undertaken in the context of the Berlin Process)9 emphasizes that one of the main objectives of law enforcement authorities is to significantly reduce the number of guns and ammunition that are held illegally.10 Authorities are expected to launch a new guns and ammunition amnesty after the 25 April 2021 parliamentary elections.11


  1. Albanian State Police, Tiranë – Finalizohet operacioni policor ‘Kompleks’, 1 April 2021, https://www.asp.gov.al/tirane-finalizohet-operacioni-policor-kompleks

  2. A2-CNN, Pa koment: ‘Bilanci‘ i armëve të sekuestruara në bazën ‚ushtarake‘ të Sokol Xhurës, 10 April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31d1JdYHK6k&t=4s

  3. Strategjia për Kontrollin e Armëve të vogla, të lehta municioneve dhe Eksplozivëve 2019–2024, Dhe Plani I Veprimit 2019–2021, SEESAC, January 2019, https://www.seesac.org/f/docs/Albania-1/ENG_Albanian_Strategy_on_Firearms_Control-24-06-2019.pdf

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Fabian Zhilla and Besfort Lamallari, Organized Crime Threat Assessment in Albania, Open Society Foundation for Albania, 2015, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Threat_Assessment_of_Albanian_Organised.pdf

  6. Interview with an investigative journalist, Tirana, 9 April 2021. 

  7. Interview with an investigative journalist, Tirana, 9 April 2021. 

  8. Vrasja e Bardhok Pllanajt në Shkodër/Momenti kur vrasësit ndjekin ‚kumbarin‘ e drogës pak para ekzekutimit! Makina e autorëve e vjedhur para 1 viti në Tiranë, i ndërruan targat, Gazeta Shqiptare, 6 April 2021, https://shqiptarja.com/lajm/vrasja-e-bardhok-pllanajt-ne-shkoder-makina-e-autoreve-e-vjedhur-para-1-viti-ne-torane-ia-nderruan-targat-50-m-larg-shtepise-se-viktimes

  9. In July 2018, at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in London, representatives of the WB6 agreed on adopting and implementing a ‘Roadmap for a sustainable solution to the illegal possession, misuse and trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW)’. The roadmap puts 2024 as a milestone by which they should ‘significantly reduce illicit flows of firearms, ammunition and explosives (FAE) into, within and beyond the Western Balkans.’ See https://berlinprocess.info/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Roadmap.pdf

  10. Strategjia për Kontrollin e Armëve të vogla, të lehta, Municioneve dhe Eksplozivëve 2019–2024, Dhe Plani I Veprimit 2019–2021, January 2019, https://www.seesac.org/f/docs/Albania-1/ENG_Albanian_Strategy_on_Firearms_Control-24-06-2019.pdf

  11. Besar Bajraktaraj, Një tjetër amnisti për dorëzimin e armëve të 1997-ës, policia sugjeron të bëhet pas zgjedhjeve dhe pandemisë, Ora News, 11 November 2020, https://www.oranews.tv/nje-tjeter-amnisti-per-dorezimin-e-armeve-te-1997-es-policia-sugjeron-te-behet-pas-zgjedhjeve-dhe-pandemise/