Fire on freighter carrying 30 tonnes of hash

Nine people aboard the Gold Star threw themselves into the sea

Around 30 tonnes of hashish almost went up in smoke after alleged drug smugglers set fire to a ship.

Italian customs officials got a tip-off that the Tanzanian-registered Gold Star freighter was carrying drugs. After following the vessel for several days, they intercepted it on Friday as it sailed between the southern coast of Sicily and Malta.

Minutes later, smoke plumed from the 85-metre ship and the nine people on board jumped overboard and had to be rescued.

Investigators discovered the cargo, worth about £50 million, which they said had been loaded in Turkey. Officials said the crew were Syrian and Egyptian

Firefighting boats had to be called in to put out the flames and the ship was being towed to the Sicilian port of Syracuse where the crew members were arrested.

According to Sky News, a spokesman for Italian customs said: "The ship was intercepted after intelligence was received that it was carrying drugs - but we never expected such a huge consignment and for the crew to set her on fire.

"The idea was no doubt to try and destroy the evidence so that we could have no case against them, but their plan failed and the fire was put out and the drugs were found during the search.

"Nine people onboard jumped into the sea, but they couldn't get very far as they were several miles from shore and they had to be rescued by Italian customs officers.

"The fire is now under control and the ship is being taken to a port where it will be thoroughly searched again and the nine crew members will be questioned by prosecutors."

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