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Customs seize drugs worth record pounds 250m: Operation to stem backdoor route of narcotics to western Europe

CUSTOMS officers seized cocaine worth pounds 250m, Britain's most valuable narcotics haul, in an operation to block South American drug barons' back-door route into western Europe, it was revealed yesterday.

The 1,300kg - about 1.3 tons - of high-purity cocaine was discovered in January, hidden in a consignment of 48 drums of bitumen on a cargo vessel docked at Birkenhead, Merseyside, en route to Poland. The seizure provides further evidence that South American drug barons are using eastern Europe as a back door to the West for huge quantities of narcotics.

Information from British Customs officers also helped the Polish authorities snatch a second consignment of cocaine in January, this time 520kg, from a similar route. Drugs from the two seizures have a street value of about pounds 400m.

In the Birkenhead operation, Customs officers removed the cocaine barrels and substituted 'dummy' drums on board the ship which had sailed from Venezuela. It was then tracked to a warehouse on the outskirts of Warsaw in Poland. Customs officers, however, could not identify the western European and Polish figures behind the deal and there have been no arrests.

Douglas Tweddle, the chief investigations officer, said: 'This massive seizure confirms intelligence reports that the South American 'narco barons' are targeting cocaine shipments on western Europe and are seeking to use east European countries as a back door. We are delighted to have been able to work with the Poles to inflict this major blow on these traffickers.'

Forty officers were involved in Operation Ayala, after intellience sources based in South America altered them to the bitumen shipment on board the Polish-American ship, the MV Jurata. The cocaine was probably grown in Bolivia or Peru and then processed in Colombia before being sent to the port of La Guaira in northern Venezuela.

On its arrival on 24 January in Birkenhead, the 48 drums were removed; 47 had inner metal containers each packed with up to 30 kilos of cocaine.

Replacement barrels of bitumen were put back onto the ship. The vessel made a further stop, in Hamburg, Germany, to unload cargo before completing its journey to Gdynia in Poland on 3 February.

The Polish authorities followed the consignment, but have failed, so far, to catch any of the drug dealers. One man is being interviewed by Polish police.

The Birkenhead seizure was the largest haul of hard drugs, not only in the United Kingdom, but also in central and eastern Europe. There have been bigger hauls of cocaine in Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, but the previous biggest UK find - 932kg - was discovered two years hidden inside lead ingots.

The quantity of cocaine seized in Britain is rapidly rising. From 611kg in 1990, to 1,078kg in 1991, and 2,248kg in 1992. Cocaine shipments to western Europe from South America, particularly involving Colombian drug cartels, have surged over the past 12 months. Drugs brought in via Spain and eastern Europe have been distributed in

co-operation with European organised crime syndicates, according to drug intelligence officers on the Continent.

Police yesterday seized 2,000 bottles of a new 'rave' drug known as GBH after raiding a house in the Hampshire village of Lovedean. Gamma Hydroxy Butyrate - which relaxes inhibitions but has been known to cause paralysis - is becoming popular in clubs and is seen a cheaper successor to ecstasy. Police seized the drugs under powers granted to them in the Medicines Act because it is not on the Home Office list of banned drugs. It was outlawed in the US in 1991.

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