Cocaine boat booby-trapped and armoured
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