Armed robbers have made off with a large cash haul seized from an Austrian Airlines plane just about to take off from an airport in Albania.
The masked assailants broke onto the runway of Tirana International Airport, close to the Albanian capital, Tuesday through a fire services entrance, and stole a shipment of money destined for Vienna, Albanian state police told CNN in a statement.
A police chase ensued and one of the gunmen was shot death. He was found to have been armed with an assault weapon, a grenade and a magazine of bullets, according to media reports from the scene.
“During the pursuit on a secondary road, the perpetrators exchanged fire with the police, and during this exchange one of the perpetrators lost his life,” police said.
Police arrested four of the attackers and questioned 40 others following the incident, the AFP news agency reported.
Albania’s Deputy Prime Minister, Erion Brace, praised the police for their actions and wrote on Twitter that the robbers were from “one of the most dangerous gangs” in the country. He added that the police “eliminated its leader.”
Sandër Lleshaj, the Interior Minister, said at a press conference Wednesday that Albanian authorities would take “strong and immediate legal measures to guarantee all the necessary safety parameters and standards” at the airport.
“Security of life, property and national security prevail over all other interests,” he said.
Defense Minister Olta Xhaçka wrote on Twitter that military police and members of the special forces will guard the perimeter of the airport.
Austrian Airlines confirmed that the incident affected Flight OS 848 destined for Vienna, and took place shortly after passengers had boarded the aircraft.
Witnesses reported that the assailants, dressed in military uniforms, approached airport staff working by the plane when the engines were already running, and ordered them to the ground. They then took the cargo of cash that had been loaded into the hold.
Austrian Airlines spokeswoman Tanja Gruber told CNN that the airline was “glad that neither passengers nor crew were hurt during the incident.”
“Safety is our top priority at Austrian Airlines and as a first measure we decided to stop the transport of valuable cargo to and from Tirana airport,” she said.
“We are currently gathering and joining forces in order to develop further measures. Tirana Airport has as well increased its security measures immediately.”
Gruber told CNN that the exact value of the goods stolen couldn’t yet be confirmed, but initial reports from local media suggest that at least €2.5 million ($2.8 million) was taken.
The airline said in a statement that local authorities inspected the aircraft following the incident and it was able to depart for Vienna 2 hours 40 minutes behind schedule.
Shipments of large amounts of money regularly pass through Tirana International Airport, as Albania’s central bank does not accept deposits of hard currency from foreign banks operating in the country.
Tuesday’s incident is not the first armed robbery at the airport. In 2016, three masked robbers entered the terminal and stole up to €3 million ($3.38 million) that was destined to be transported abroad.