MI6 'helped drugs baron escape from open prison'

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The Independent Online

Roddy "Popeye" McLean, the drugs baron who walked out of prison just five years into his 24-year sentence, was helped to abscond by the British intelligence services, police sources believe.

The Prison Service's revelation, two weeks ago, that McLean, 59, had walked out of Leyhill open prison in Gloucestershire last November, caused a storm of controversy and huge embarrassment to the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who ordered an inquiry into the escape.

But police sources have told The Independent on Sunday that they believe McLean may now be operating as an MI6 agent in Africa.

McLean and his seven co-conspirators were arrested in 1996 by Customs officers after transferring three tons of cannabis from a Dutch-crewed ship off the coast of Scotland.

A Customs officer, Alan Soutar, 47, was killed in the raid after he fell between a Customs cutter and McLean's drug boat and was crushed. McLean was subsequently jailed, in 1997.

The Prison Service is carrying out an inquiry into how McLean, a Scot, was quickly reclassified from being classed as a category A, high-risk inmate and termed "one of Scotland's most dangerous prisoners", to being described only as a low-risk, category D status and then being allowed to transfer to an open prison in England.

"It's rare for a prisoner sentenced for such a serious offence to be put in open prison this quickly. We think he was helped by those mysterious folk on the South Bank in London [MI6]," said a police source.

It is believed that McLean was spirited away to Mozambique, where he had a number of business interests. Police sources think that MI6 might be using McLean to help monitor this turbulent part of Africa. McLean had worked on UN ships visiting Africa, taking aid to Mozambique and Tanzania.

The former soldier and merchant seaman was also apparently able to export former Army equipment into Africa.

Edinburgh-based McLean, a well-known figure in the Scottish underworld, is believed to have organised other massive importations of drugs before his arrest. In 1996 he was trailed to London, where he met a lieutenant of the notorious London drugs gang headed by the Adams family.

During McLean's 1997 trial, it emerged that he was acting as a freelance informer. It is believed that he provided information to MI6, as well as police and Customs.

Reportedly, it would not be the first time that MI6 had helped adrugs baron to escape from prison.

In 1991 the Soho crime lord Joe Wilkins was transferred to an open prison just three years into a 10-year sentence for smuggling a huge quantity of drugs into Britain. He escaped not once, but twice.

On the second occasion Wilkins fled to Spain, where he was later at the centre of a botched MI6 and police operation to target money-laundering operations run from Gibraltar.