Six held after £32m cocaine haul thrown from cargo plane at airport

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The Independent Online

The seizure of half a tonne of cocaine, thrown from a cargo plane when it landed at a British airfield, could be the start of a worrying new trend of smuggling, customs officers warned yesterday.

The seizure of half a tonne of cocaine, thrown from a cargo plane when it landed at a British airfield, could be the start of a worrying new trend of smuggling, customs officers warned yesterday.

The £32m haul – the biggest consignment known to have arrived in Britain by air – was recovered on Tuesday night at Southend airport in Essex after being dumped from the back of a Boeing 707. Six men, including four Britons, were arrested and were being questioned yesterday.

The seizure is believed to have followed a tip-off. The aircraft took off from Montego Bay, Jamaica, on Monday and arrived in Southend via Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.

More than 30 customs officers, who watched the plane through night-vision goggles, saw it taxi to the end of the runway where the cargo doors opened and six suitcases were thrown out. Three officers were needed to lift a single case, each of which weighed more than 80kg.

On landing, five air crew – three Britons, a Nigerian and a Serbian – were arrested. A British ground crew member was also arrested. Other than its cargo of cocaine, the aircraft was empty, suggesting it was chartered for the operation.

Jim Fitzpatrick, assistant chief investigation officer for Customs and Excise, said such a big drugs drop was highly unusual. "[The drop] shows the lengths criminal gangs will go to evade our controls," he said. "It means that we have got to be alert to the changing patterns of the way they are smuggling drugs into the UK.

"It would be worrying if it's a new trend because it is potentially a very good way of getting drugs in."

The current cocaine market in Britain is worth an estimated £600m a year. Most of the drug comes from Colombia and is shipped to Western Europe, usually through Spain and Portugal. About 15 per cent of the cocaine ends up in Britain, and the most widely used point of entry is Dover.

The second most popular route is via the Caribbean. Smugglers load the drugs on small, fast boats and deliver them from the mainland to the islands of the West Indies. The consignments are then divided into smaller quantities and given to couriers, or "mules", who use scheduled flights to smuggle the cocaine into Britain.

Mr Fitzpatrick said the street value of Tuesday's seizure could have risen to about £100m, depending on how it was cut.