Co­caine boat booby-trapped and ar­moured

The Australian - - THE NATION - RORY CAL­LI­NAN DAVID MUR­RAY

A booby-trapped boat linked to $50 mil­lion worth of co­caine that had gone miss­ing in Pa­pua New Guinea could pose a ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal hazard and had likely been fit­ted with ar­mour for use by in­sur­gents or as a de­fence against ri­val crim­i­nals.

The Aus­tralian has ob­tained the first pic­tures of the mod­i­fied, un­reg­is­tered ves­sel be­ing in­ter­cepted by armed Pa­pua New Guinean sailors dur­ing the hunt for the stash of co­caine, which had been un­earthed on a re­mote Pa­cific is­land ear­lier this year.

Vil­lagers on tiny Budibudi Is­land, about 400km east off PNG’s main­land, found the drugs buried in 11 duf­fel bags on the beach in May. Soon af­ter they dis­cov­ered the sub­stance, the mys­tery boat ar­rived at the is­land and the crew, a group of tat­tooed Asian men, con­fronted the vil­lagers and took back the drugs.

Alerted by a ra­dio call from the vil­lagers, a PNG navy pa­trol boat with po­lice on board then man- aged to run the ves­sel down about 200km to the north­west of Budibudi is­land.

The crew, six Hong Kong na­tion­als and one Mon­tene­grin, were taken into cus­tody but po­lice were un­able to search the boat be­low decks as it ap­peared to have been de­lib­er­ately left with fuel and oil fill­ing the hold with dan­ger­ous fumes.

The boat, which had no iden­ti­fy­ing reg­is­tra­tion or marks, was too heavy to tow; it was al­lowed to drift and has since run aground in the Si­assi Is­lands in the Vi­tiaz Strait about 400km north of where it was in­ter­cepted.

Po­lice say the co­caine could still be in the hold of the un­guarded boat or it may have been off­loaded by the crew to an­other ves­sel or on an­other is­land be­fore they were in­ter­cepted.

Pic­tures of the boat show it ap­pears to have been sig­nif­i­cantly mod­i­fied, with the sides of the deck built up with steel or wood in what PNG po­lice be­lieve is a form of ar­mour. A re­in­forced slid­ing door into the hold ap­peared to have been in­stalled to­wards the front of boat.

Ex­perts who viewed the photos said they had never seen any­thing like it be­fore. “It looks so sus­pi­cious,’’ said Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Sara Percy, who spe­cialises in mar­itime se­cu­rity and piracy. She said it was un­usual no ef­fort ap­peared to have been made to make the boat look nor­mal. “Mostly when you want to smug­gle stuff, you do it in a fish­ing boat and are low-pro­file, but in this sit­u­a­tion (the crew is) not try­ing to dis­guise it. I can only (con­ject) they did it to change the shape of the hull and dis­guise what may have been a stolen ves­sel.”

James Kraska, a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­tre for Oceans Law and Pol­icy in the US, said he thought the mod­i­fi­ca­tions were to pro­tect the cargo.

Ef­forts to con­tact the PNG gov­ern­ment yes­ter­day were un­suc­cess­ful.

The mod­i­fied, un­reg­is­tered and booby-trapped smug­glers boat in­ter­cepted by armed Pa­pua New Guinean sailors

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