Page last updated at 14:50 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 15:50 UK

Uncovering a gang's 36m cannabis haul

By Damon Embling
Home Affairs Correspondent, BBC South

Clockwise from top left Goran Otovic, Dragan Stankovic, Moshe Kedar and Mordechai Hersh
The gang included 81-year-old Moshe Kedar (bottom right)

When customs officers boarded the Abbira ocean-going tug in Southampton last year they found more than 50,000 bars of cannabis resin worth £36m packed inside water and ballast tanks.

The cramped and rusting vessel, sailing under the Israeli flag, had been used by Israeli mafia to carry out one of the largest ever cannabis smuggling attempts in the UK.

Over 12.5 tonnes of cannabis resin - enough to produce 36 million spliffs - were discovered.

There were six crew members onboard while others - including the organisers - were on dry land helping to co-ordinate plans.

An Israeli organised crime group had employed an Eastern European crew to transport the drugs to the UK for delivery to a Leicester based criminal gang.

Six men have been convicted of drug smuggling at the end of a trial at Winchester Crown Court, while two were found not guilty. Four had earlier pleaded guilty.

Tapped calls

The six who were found guilty were Serbian nationals Goran Otovic, 54, Dragan Stankovic, 54, Dusan Mileusnic, 49, and Negovan Jovanovic, 58 and Israeli nationals Moshe Kedar, 81, and Mordechai Hersh, 67.

Negovan Jovanovic (l) and Dusan Mileusnic
The men are due to be sentenced at a later hearing

The four who pleaded guilty were Mohinder Rai, 35, Baljinder Rai, 31, Anjum Nazir, 39, all from Leicester, and Israeli national Yehezkel Srebro, 57.

The 10 men will be sentenced on Thursday.

It was a daring operation, but a lucrative one for the criminals behind it if they had managed to smuggle the cannabis in through Hampshire and then on to the drug market.

However, the gang did not know they had been under surveillance for many months, led by the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca).

Tim Manhire, who provided international co-operation for the case, including Soca, said: "Many years ago we were dealing with hash jobs coming to the UK, but I don't remember one as big as this in recent memory, certainly not by this mode of transport."

The Abbira started its journey from the Spanish port of Ceuta, close to Morocco.

From there, it sailed to waters off Morocco, near Larache. It was here in the dead of night that the drugs were loaded on to the tug.

A search of the Abbira uncovered 12.5 tonnes of cannabis resin

As part of the surveillance, phone calls were tapped and one call was intercepted as the crew on the Abbira waited for the drugs.

One of those onboard could be heard telling an organiser on land that they were four miles from the beach, a little dangerous, they said, but it was secure.

From the Moroccan coast, the Abbira headed north, around Portugal and France, then into Southampton where it berthed on the Itchen River in April 2008.

Over the next six days, the gang's movements were closely watched and recorded by the authorities.

Members were filmed meeting in the city, they were also caught on camera looking across the Itchen river at the Abbira.

The smugglers were trying to work out how to get the drugs off without being spotted.

On 9 April, armed with damning evidence, the police moved in and arrested those involved.

Supply chain

When they got onboard customs officers, along with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), uncovered the huge stash of cannabis resin bars.

"That sort of quantity of cannabis was a significant seizure and would have had an effect on the supply chain in the UK," said Bob Gaiger, spokesman for HM Revenue and Customs.

"Certainly we don't get our hands on those sort of size quantities every day of the week."

Clockwise from top left Mohinder Rai, Baljinder Rai,Yehezkel Srebro and  Anjum Nazir
Four men previously pleaded guilty to their involvement in the plot

The team co-ordinating the international involvement in the Abbira case was rooted hundreds of miles away from Southampton, at the newly-formed Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC) in Lisbon.

Officers there from across Europe are waging a war against drug traffickers.

They work closely with Europe's navy forces to monitor and, when necessary, intercept boats suspected of smuggling drugs.

Mr Manhire, an ex-customs chief from Portsmouth who runs the centre, said: "Our seizure total now in 20 to 21 months is 43.5 tonnes of cocaine, which has been seized in the transatlantic vector and around about 20 tonnes of hash.

"Criminal gangs have been dismantled as far afield as Spain and Brazil."

Meanwhile the 12.5 tonnes of cannabis resin seized in Southampton has now been incinerated - the criminals' profits have literally gone up in smoke.

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