Albanian gvt and Chinese airport management in blame game over armed robbery

The Chinese-owned company that manages Tirana’s International Mother Teresa Airport has reacted angrily after the Albanian authorities accused it of security failures, for letting gunmen enter an Austrian Airlines Airbus on the tarmac and leave with millions of euros due to be transferred to a bank in Vienna.

Tirana International Airport SHPK, owned by Hong Kong-based China Everbright Limited, claimed that responsibility for responding to such major security breaches lay with the Albanian police.

The airport forms “part of the territory of Albania and by law is protected by state police”, it said on Wednesday evening, adding that it considered the Interior Ministry’s accusations it was to blame as “incorrect.”

Media reports say the robbers drove a van on to the tarmac as the cash was about to be loaded onto the plane on Tuesday. One gang member was killed in an exchange of fire.

The company’s reaction came after Prime Minister Edi Rama entered the fray on Wednesday by tweeting from Monaco, which he is visiting, that “the Chinese company failed to guarantee security”.

Responding to the label that it was a “Chinese company”, Tirana International Airport SHPK added: “The airport doesn’t belong to the Chinese, it belongs to all Albanians.”

Prime Minister Rama has faced uncomfortable questions over how such a security breach could have occurred in the international airport of a NATO member state.

Other ministers have also blamed the company.

Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj said the “security mechanism that falls under the company’s responsibility failed in this case”.

Minister of Defence Olta Xhacka called its conduct “irresponsible” before announcing that she had ordered military special forces to take over the security perimeter at the airport.

Starting from Thursday, officers from the Military Police and Special Force Battalion will be stationed at the airport, according to local media.

Albania formed a concessionary agreement over the airport with a German company in 2004. It later sold part of its shares to a Spanish company, which sold its share to CEL in 2016 for 82 million euros.

The company has been accused of charging high fees, and travel companies have blamed high fares and low numbers of tourists on its de facto monopoly. It has recorded a profit.

The company’s net profit stood in 2017 was about 18 million euros. The concessionary agreement expires in 2027.

Austrian Airlines said it was halting the further transfer of valuable freight from Tirana immediately.