Ireland
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Smugglers burned cocaine as Army Rangers stormed ship

Smugglers on board a container ship at the centre of a major drug operation off the Cork coast were burning bales of cocaine as elite soldiers were being fast roped onto the vessel from an Air Corps helicopter, the Irish Examiner understands.

It is understood that the Defence Forces recorded the storming of the MV Matthew by members of the Army Ranger Wing.

The action was taken after shots were fired by the Irish Naval Service ship LÉ William Butler Yeats across the bow of the bulk-container ship when it refused to answer calls to come to a halt.

While the cocaine haul on board the container ship has yet to be assessed and weighed, sources indicate it may be the largest-ever cocaine seizure in the State.

The consignment is thought to be at least around 1.5 tonnes and, according to a number of sources, up to 2 tonnes, although the quantity is yet to be officially confirmed.

The previous largest seizures were of 1.575 tonnes of cocaine at Dunlough Bay in west Cork in July 2007 followed by 1.5 tonnes of cocaine inside the Dances with Waves yacht, stormed by navy officers off the Mizen coast in November 2008.

The Army Ranger Wing moved to stop the burning of the cocaine, secure the remaining consignment and bring the ship under control.

The vessel was captained by an Iranian national and had a crew of over 20 people.

It is not known how much cocaine was burned, but an expert analysis will be conducted.

Three men were being questioned in garda stations in Co Wexford last night, as the MV Matthew, which travelled from the Caribbean island of Curacao over the past six weeks was escorted into Cork harbour. 

In Wexford, law enforcement agents were continuing their efforts to establish whether there are drugs on board the Castlemore, which ran aground off Blackwater, 12km north of Rosslare Harbour, before midnight on Sunday night.

It was considered too dangerous in yesterday's weather conditions and with shifting sandbanks to bring another vessel alongside the trawler at Money Weights sandbank, 8km out to sea from Blackwater village. 

A helicopter arrived at the stranded trawler yesterday afternoon to conduct an “oversight” of the scene but it was not boarded.

The 22-year-old MV Matthew left Willemstad in Curacao on August 9. The vessel had previously docked in Aruba on August 7, spending 30 hours in port there. 

It is believed to have travelled to the Caribbean from south America and sails under a Panamanian flag. 

It is thought to have sailed along the south and southeast coast of Ireland in recent days, before being boarded early on Tuesday by Irish law enforcement officers.

Two of the men being questioned last night were arrested after they were winched off the fishing trawler on Monday. The third was arrested during the impounding of the MV Matthew. 

The men in custody are aged 60, 50 and 31 years old. All three are being questioned about organised crime offences.

The fishing vessel, the Castlemore, was sold last week by a Castletownbere-based fisherman and left the West Cork fishing port at around lunchtime on Friday. 

Local sources said it should have reached Wexford in around 20 hours. However, it did not arrive off Wexford until at least 60 hours later.

It is believed the delay was due to the trawler travelling out to sea to meet up with the “mother ship”, the MV Matthew.

A Garda "deep rummage" of the vessel searching for additional drugs, weapons, communications devices and further evidence such as documentation will begin today and is expected to take a number of days.

Any further finds will help investigators piece together who is behind the trans-national trafficking operation.

Irish agencies were tracking the operation before the Castlemore ran aground at around 11.30pm on Sunday night. 

One source told the Irish Examiner that a naval team left Haulbowline at lunchtime on Friday on its mission to target the operation involving the MV Matthew – including its rendezvous with the Castlemore.

It is likely that the larger vessel also met other smaller boats on its voyage, to offload further drugs which were then to be distributed throughout Europe.

It was thought that the Castlemore may have been destined for Devon in England, possibly carrying a shipment of drugs.

The interagency operation involving gardaí, the navy, the air corps and Revenue was in a race against time because of poor weather last weekend and the predicted arrival of Storm Agnes on Wednesday.

One source told the Irish Examiner that the cargo vessel is believed to have been under the surveillance of Irish enforcement officers as part of an international operation that has been tracking it for several weeks.

The source said the original plan by Irish agencies was to target the two vessels when they met at sea off the south or south east coast during the weekend. However, weather conditions are understood to have mitigated against that.

Gardaí released a statement as the cargo vessel was being brought into Marino Point in Cork harbour.

A garda spokeswoman said: “After Army Ranger Wing personnel secured the vessel, members of the Irish Navy, the Garda National Drugs & Organised Crime Bureau (GNDOCB) and Revenue’s Customs Service were transferred to the cargo vessel, which is currently under escort by Naval Ship to an Irish port.

The cargo vessel will now be the subject of a detailed examination by Revenue Customs and An Garda Síochána.” 

She added, in a statement: “This intelligence led operation was conducted in collaboration with the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre - Narcotics (MAOC (N)) based in Lisbon, and partners from the National Crime Agency (NCA), the Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) and French customs service DNRED.” 

MAOC-N is a cooperative body made up of France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Portugal and the UK with the aim of tackling air and sea smuggling.