Security at Albania's Tirana airport under scrutiny after multimillion-dollar runway heist

SPH Brightcove Video
Armed robbers may have made off with at least US$2.3 million after storming a plane at an airport in Albania on Tuesday, but not before the heist went awry and one of their own was killed in a police pursuit.

TIRANA (AFP) - Security at the Albanian capital's airport was under scrutiny on Wednesday (April 10) after a Hollywood-style robbery on its runway that left one gunman dead while his accomplices fled with millions of euros.

Albanian "army forces will take over the security of the airport", Defence Minister Olta Xhacka said following the robbery.

The armed men broke onto the runway of the Mother Theresa airport on Tuesday afternoon and stole the cash destined for a bank in Vienna on an Austrian Airlines flight.

The family of Admir Murataj, killed in a gunfight with the police, identified his body on Wednesday, local media reported.

Investigators say he was among four men who used a firefighters' entry to access the runway.

They were in a stolen van bearing the logo of the tax authorities and carrying false licence plates.

According to the initial investigation passengers were already aboard the Austrian Airlines flight when the group arrived on the runway.

Heavily armed robbers, wearing masks and dressed in military fatigues carried out the heist in less than five minutes.

Police did not reveal the exact amount of stolen money, but Albanian media put it at between €2.5 million and €10 million (S$3.8 million and S$15 million).

Foreign banks operating in Albania send their hard currency to Vienna because Albania's central bank does not accept such deposits for security reasons.

Murataj, armed with an automatic rifle and a grenade, was killed in a shootout with the police on a nearby road.

The other gunmen managed to flee despite the deployment of special police backed by two helicopters.


The dead man's brother Cen Murataj, speaking to Albanian reporters outside a morgue where he identified his body, doubted whether he was the ringleader "since an organiser could not have been killed".

But Murataj was already known by police in the region.

In 2013, he fled a Greek prison along with about 10 other Albanian inmates, media reports said.

He was also the prime suspect in a robbery of a money transporter on the Tirana airport road in 2016.

That was one of a string of heists on the road.

In February 2017, robbers made off with €3.2 million, in June 2016 about €995,000, while last year there were two similar attacks.

On Wednesday, criticism grew over security measures at the airport, notably since the robbery coincided with a visit by Matthew Palmer, a high-ranking US official.

Investigators said the robbers were apparently very well informed and may have had accomplices at the airport.

They questioned dozens of staff members, notably security services employees.


Tirana International Airport (TIA) has been operated by Chinese state-owned China Everbright Limited company since 2016.

"The Chinese company has failed to guarantee the security of Tirana airport," Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said.

"The Albanian state will not accept any justification from the company and will take control of the external and internal security of the airport," he tweeted.

Albanian Interior Minister Sanders Lleshaj said first results of the probe showed that "the concession company has not complied with any mandatory safety standards," defined both by Albanian law and the World Civil Aviation Organisation.

But the airport rejected "accusations by the Albanian authorities of having failed (to implement) security measures at the Tirana airport".

The company "have complied with all the obligations", TIA said in a statement.

The opposition to socialist Prime Minister Rama said the government had displayed "baffling incompetence".

"They are very competent to crack down on opposition protesters with tear gas and batons of hundreds of policemen, but not to secure the country's only airport," said Gazmend Bardhi, a top official of the Democratic Party.

"Security measures within the airport have completely failed," Spiro Brumbulli of the association of Albanian banks told AFP.

"It is a very serious affair and unfortunately not the first one," said Infrastructures Minister Belinda Balluku.

She regretted that the Chinese company had rebuffed government requests for stepped-up investment in security.

The airport is "very vulnerable" to such attacks, Balluku said.

An Austrian Airlines spokeswoman earlier insisted the crew and passengers had not been in any danger but said that as a security measure there would be no further cash transfers from Tirana to Vienna.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.