Page last updated at 11:10 GMT, Monday, 28 September 2009 12:10 UK

Navy seizes cocaine 'worth 240m'


The Navy fired on the vessel in an effort to sink it before it drifted into a shipping lane

The Royal Navy says it has seized its biggest haul of cocaine, estimating its street value at £240m ($380m).

The Portsmouth-based frigate HMS Iron Duke seized more than five-and-a-half tonnes of the drug from a 138ft fishing boat off the coast of Colombia.

The Royal Navy and US Coast Guard jointly intercepted the boat after it was spotted by a navy helicopter crew.

Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell praised the operation for "damaging the trade in this vile substance".

It is the largest drugs bust by value, and by volume, in terms of cocaine
Commander Andrew Stacey
HMS Iron Duke, Royal Navy

He said cocaine "only serves to poison our communities".

Whitehall officials have said the bust took place in international waters off the north coast of Colombia, according to BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner.

The 212 bales of cocaine, weighing about 26kg each, were seized in an area known for trafficking.

Cdr Andrew Stacey said the ship's crew was "delighted".

He said: "This was our third successful drug bust in as many months but this surpasses anything we've had and anything the navy had previously.

"It is the largest drugs bust by value, and by volume, in terms of cocaine. It is a massive blow for the narcotics industry."

Graph showing previous drug hauls by HMS Iron Duke

Cdr Stacey told the BBC that the crew - along with an armed helicopter and inflatable boats - had intercepted the boat, MV Cristal, in a "high-speed pounce" on 15 September.

They spent 24 hours searching it before the drugs were found hidden beneath the ship's regular stores.

A concrete floor had to be broken up with sledge hammers and metal panels had to be unbolted before the stash was discovered and removed, he said.

HMS Iron Duke with drugs on fishing boat MV Cristal
The Royal Navy has maintained a presence in the Caribbean for decades
Primary role is reassurance and hurricane relief
British ship RFA Fort George can carry fuel, spares, food and supplies, and has medical facilities including a 12-bed surgical facility
Royal Navy operations reflect Britain's ties with Commonwealth nations and British overseas territories in the region
Royal Navy ships also participate in anti-drugs operations
Earlier this year, HMS Iron Duke seized cocaine worth £33m, last year she impounded cocaine worth £45m
Prince William has served on the Iron Duke

The drug smugglers' boat was later sunk by gunfire.

Cdr Stacey said several drug runners of different nationalities had been arrested but no more details could be revealed.

He said he could not confirm for operational reasons whether intelligence had directed the Iron Duke to the vessel, but likened the Royal Navy's patrols to those of a "bobby on the beat" who notices when "something's not quite right".

Another British ship, RFA Fort George, was also involved in the joint operation between the Royal Navy and the US Coast Guard.

HMS Iron Duke's primary task, while on a six-month deployment, is to reassure and assist the people of the UK Overseas Territories during the hurricane season.

The warship, which was launched in 1991 and cost £140m to build, is also on stand-by to take part in anti-narcotics operations.

The latest seizure is the third major counter-narcotics success for HMS Iron Duke off South America in recent months.

In raids in July and August, the warship was involved in two operations which seized cocaine with an estimated street value totalling £39m.

Prince William served on HMS Iron Duke in July 2008, during which the crew seized more than £40m of cocaine in the Caribbean.

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