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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 April, 2003, 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK
Australian drug trial for N Koreans
The Pong Su
The Pong Su was intercepted by Australian naval boats
About 30 North Koreans are facing trial for heroin smuggling, after their ship was chased and raided by the Australian authorities at the weekend.

Twenty-six of the group were ordered to stand trial in Melbourne, Victoria, when they appeared at a pre-trial hearing in Sydney on Tuesday.

At least three others will by tried in a Sydney hospital, where they are being treated for an unspecified condition.

Police escorting the suspects wore masks and rubber gloves, apparently because of fears they could be carrying the deadly Sars virus.

The North Koreans' ship, the Tuvalu-registered Pong Su, is described by police as part of an international drugs ring. The defendants are suspected of smuggling heroin worth up to A$80m ($48m).

One of the men appearing in Sydney magistrates' court on Tuesday repeatedly protested the sailors' innocence.

But the defendants were told it was the wrong forum to enter a plea, and that they should appear in court in Melbourne by Thursday in the state where the drug haul was made.

Four other men - two from Malaysia, a Singaporean and a Chinese - are charged with smuggling about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of heroin which police said had come from the Pong Su, the Associated Press reported.

High Seas chase

Another suspected smuggler died trying to get the drugs ashore. His body washed up on the south Australian coast near the town of Lorne.

Federal police on Monday continued to search for evidence on board the Pong Su, which is now moored in Sydney Harbour.

The 4,000-ton freighter was seized on Sunday after a four-day chase by Australian naval vessels on stormy seas.

The boat was raided by abseiling elite SAS troops.


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