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Wednesday, 17 October, 2001, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Six held over 32m cocaine haul
One of the six suitcases
Six people are being questioned by Customs officers in connection with one of the largest seizures of cocaine in Britain.

More than 500kg of the drug, estimated to be worth 32m, were dumped out of the back of a cargo plane in six huge suitcases as it landed at Southend airport in Essex on Tuesday.

The drugs were immediately seized by customs officers when the ageing Boeing 707 landed at 2100BST.

The impounded plane
The plane has been impounded
Five air crew and one airport worker - four Britons, a Nigerian and a Serbian - were arrested. They were transported to London, where they were due to be interviewed on Wednesday.

The seizure was the culmination of a lengthy undercover investigation by Customs agents.

The cocaine is believed to have been shipped from South America to the Caribbean, a notorious distribution point for drugs shipments to Britain and the United States.

In Jamaica it was put on the cargo plane bound for Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, before heading for its final destination in the UK.

'Significant seizure'

The plane taxied to the end of the runway at Southend airport, out of sight of the terminal building, before the drug suitcases were thrown out. It then taxied into the terminal building.

Some 30 undercover officers were lying in wait to seize the drugs. They stormed the plane and arrested the crew.

The plane, which has been impounded, carried no other cargo.

A Customs spokesman said: "It appears the plan was that the cocaine would be picked up later on."

'Highly unusual'

Assistant chief investigation officer Jim Fitzpatrick said the smuggling method used was "highly unusual".

"It shows the lengths criminal gangs will go to evade our controls. 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."

Mr Fitzpatrick said the total street value of the cocaine seizure could have soared to around 100m depending on how it was cut.

The suitcases containing the cocaine were so heavy that it required three officers to lift each one.

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The BBC's George Eykyn
"Customs say the plane had no other cargo"
See also:

17 Oct 01 | UK
Tracking drugs into the UK
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