Police arrest 14 in Heathrow criminal network inquiry

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The Independent Online

Police investigating a suspected multimillion-pound drugs and theft racket operating at Heathrow airport made 14 arrests yesterday.

Police investigating a suspected multimillion-pound drugs and theft racket operating at Heathrow airport made 14 arrests yesterday.

Twelve men and two women were held in dawn raids in London and Surrey in connection with criminal activities spanning a decade. The arrests included three airport employees and former airport employees. Officers seized goods including a Ferrari, a Porsche and a replica firearm.

Four of the suspects were arrested in connection with the robbery of £3.5m of mostly American currency stolen from Heathrow soon after being unloaded from a British Airways flight from Bahrain in February 2002. A further three were suspected of playing a part in a separate multimillion-pound robbery attempt at the airport which was foiled by police.

Seven other suspects were being questioned about their alleged involvement in smuggling cocaine through the airport. Activities at Heathrow have long been the subject of police investigations. Tens of millions of pounds of goods, including bullion, currency and electrical items, are stolen after arriving at Heathrow every year.

As well as numerous large-scale robberies, detectives also believe that huge amounts of cocaine have been brought through the airport by criminals with inside help.

The arrests, conducted by 200 officers from Flying Squad and Customs, were the culmination of a crackdown on crime launched in April last year. The initiative, codenamed Operation Grafton, was set up after repeated complaints from private companies at the scale of their losses. It has focused on robberies worth more than £50,000 and has resulted in a 73 per cent reduction in large-sale robberies.

Detectives have arrested 97 people, seized six guns and dealt with £150m of stolen goods. Forty airport employees have lost their jobs because of links with organised crime and 24 people have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms totalling 150 years.

Tarique Ghaffur, Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, highlighted the difficulties in fighting crime at Heathrow. With a site spanning 3,000 acres and 70,000 workers handling 200 high-value shipments every day, Heathrow was "more of a city than an airport", he said.

"There have been some very serious career criminals operating in and around the airport making a good living - they have inevitably contaminated people working in and around the airport," he added.

The extent of the criminal rackets affecting business at Heathrow prompted one major company to leave and establish its headquarters at Frankfurt airport instead.