Police bust world ecstasy ring

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The Independent Online

Australian police said today they had seized the world's largest ecstasy haul during a series of raids on drug barons across four states and in Europe in which 16 people were arrested.

Australian Federal Police said they seized 4.4 tonnes, or 15 million pills, of the banned amphetamine stimulant that were hidden in tins of tomatoes and imported from Italy into the southern city of Melbourne in June last year.

Raids were also underway in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, while German police were also involved in a specially formed European police taskforce, with €500m seized and overseas arrests still expected.

"This is part of a global, international syndicate. It is classic organised crime," AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty told reporters.

The operation followed a 12-month investigation after a tip-off and X-ray imaging of a shipping container that arrived in Port Melbourne on 28 June last year.

Customs officers and AFP agents examined the container and found more than 3,000 tins, each weighing about 1.5 kilogrammes, containing MDMA tablets with an approximate street value of A$440m (£204m), police said.

Another container with 150 kilogrammes of cocaine was discovered on 24 July this year and led to today's arrests in the Australian states of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales.

"This is what makes getting up in the morning and coming to work worthwhile," Australian Customs chief Michael Carmody said.

Keelty, Australia's top policeman, said the year-long operation had been the largest in his force's history, involving 400 officers and 185,000 phone intercepts to shatter a syndicate believed responsible for 60 percent of drug importation in southern Australia.

The raids had included homes of ethnic-Italian Australians linked to the Calabrian mafia in the New South Wales fruit-growing town of Griffith, as well as figures linked to the Black Uhlans outlaw motorcycle gang.

Keelty named one of those arrested as Pasquale "Pat" Barbaro, 46, whose family was once named in a judicial inquiry into the 1977 disappearance of a prominent Australian anti-drugs campaigner.

The AFP said the investigation also identified a money laundering operation worth more than A$9m used to pay for the illegal drugs.

The size of the haul surpassed the previous world ecstasy record of 1 tonne in 2005, also in Australia, and Keelty said local youths were paying high prices for the drug, making the country an attractive target for global drug cartels.

Those arrested were yet to face court or police charges.