Frontier tobacco war

THE Royal Canadian Mounted Police, symbol of the Canadian frontier, have saddled up and are dodging bullets again, writes Hugh Winsor from Ottawa.

But this time they are on snowmobiles, chasing Mohawk Indian cigarette smugglers at high speeds over the frozen St Lawrence river between Canada and the United States west of Montreal.

The Mountie patrols through Mohawk reservations that had been off-limits were part of a new, all-out assault by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien on cigarette smuggling, despite Mohawk chiefs warning of armed resistance.

Warning shots were fired at police officers last week, creating echos of the 1990 shoot-out at Oka, near Montreal, where a Quebec policeman was killed and the Canadian government was forced to call in the army.

The trade has been fuelled by cheap US cigarettes. Armed Mohawk smugglers have linked up with organised crime networks that the RCMP estimates account for 40 per cent of cigarette sales in Canada. Shops began openly to sell cut- price contraband and Quebec pleaded for action.

But when Mr Chretien moved last week to slash cigarette taxes and undercut the smugglers, he drew another shower of arrows - from an enraged anti-smoking lobby and even some of his own MPs.

(Photograph omitted)