TIRANA, Feb 1 (Reuters) - An Albanian court sentenced Italian pilot Giorgio Riformato to 15 years in jail on Monday for international trafficking in narcotics, two years since his crash-landing revealed a new drug route from Albania into Italy.
The discovery of Riformato's small Piper craft, which got its nose got stuck in sand after its wheel broke during a landing on an Adriatic Sea beach in May 2014, and two other planes seized in Italy revealed traffickers were frequently using small planes to ferry cannabis from Albania.
His sentence was harsher than those of his five Albanians partners, who were caught with 300 kilos of cannabis nearby, because Riformato rejected the charges. His Albanian accomplices pleaded no contest and received reduced sentences.
Riformato always insisted he went off course to have a look at the Albanian seaside despite warnings by the air control authorities, but was later forced to land because of an engine problem. Experts told the court the engine had no such damage.
The U.S. State Department's 2015 international narcotics report identified Albania as a significant source country for marijuana, as well as a trans-shipment point for cocaine and heroin destined for European markets.
Citing figures from the Albanian State Police, it said the volume of marijuana seizures in Albania totalled 101.7 metric tons over the first nine months of 2014, almost as much as the amounts seized in the previous decade.
Much of the cannabis seized in 2014 came from a crackdown on the village of Lazarat, where cannabis was grown openly.
No cannabis has been cultivated there since but police uprooted 650,333 plants elsewhere in Albania's rugged mountains in 2015, up from 551,414 in 2014.
Shipments of more than one tonne of cannabis have also been seized in Albanian ports, but others have also made it to Italy in trailers and fishing boats. (Reporting by Benet Koleka; editing by Katharine Houreld)