POLICE said the search for cocaine hidden in a vessel intercepted off the north-east coast of Scotland by a navy warship could take several more days after its crew were charged with drug trafficking.
The Tanzanian-registered Hamal was stopped 100 miles east of Aberdeen by the Royal Navy Type 23 frigate HMS Somerset and the Border Force vessel Valiant.
The nine men aboard the tug, aged between 26 and 63, are due to appear at Aberdeen Sheriff Court tomorrow.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said its Scotland-based officers had made a “potentially significant seizure of illegal drugs”.
However, these were not discovered until after the 32-metre long ocean-going vessel arrived in Aberdeen Harbour following its interception 100 miles offshore on Thursday.
The agency said the search was ongoing and could take several more days. A spokesman said: “We have found some cocaine but have no idea yet how much there is on board.”
‘The exact amount of cocaine on board has yet to be determined’
He was unable to give the nationality of the crew members, but said they are not British.
According to the vesselfinder.com website, the 422-ton Hamal left Tenerife two weeks ago and had been due to arrive in Hamburg on Friday night. The website said the vessel was previously at Tuzla in Turkey in February.
The Hamal was seized in the North Sea in a joint operation with Border Force and the Royal Navy following intelligence received by the agency.
HMS Somerset and the cutter Valiant intercepted the 36-year-old tug. The agency said the vessel was boarded and accompanied into Aberdeen, where a search was carried out by specialist Border Force officers with operational support from Police Scotland.
The spokesman said: “The crew of the Hamal were detained for questioning by investigators from the NCA’s Border Policing Command, and later charged with drug trafficking offences.
“They remain in custody and will appear before Aberdeen Sheriff Court on Monday.”
John McGowan, of the Border Policing Command, which is based at the Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh in North Lanarkshire, said: “This is a potentially significant seizure of illegal drugs, only made possible by the co-operation between ourselves, Border Force, the Royal Navy and our international partners.
“The exact amount of cocaine on board is yet to be determined and the search is likely to continue for some time.
“The ongoing NCA investigation is being supported by Police Scotland.”
The operation comes a week after the agency helped French and Spanish authorities seize more than two tonnes of cocaine from a Europe-bound yacht off Martinique, in the Caribbean.
The three crew members – two Spanish and one Venezuelan – were arrested after the boat was found stuffed with 80 bales of the drug, with a potential street value of more than £300 million.
The NCA said it was one of France’s biggest seizures and at least some of the drugs would have ended up being sold in the UK. Last December, two Dutch men were jailed for 16 and 20 years each for their roles in a James Bond-style plot to smuggle more than £16 million of cocaine into the UK using a high-speed underwater scooter from a cargo ship moored in the Firth of Clyde.
Customs officers found more than 108 kilos of high purity cocaine in the rudder space of the Cape Maria at Hunterston, near Largs, last May.
The drugs were seized during a joint operation by the NCA, Border Force’s national deep rummage team and Police Scotland’s marine policing unit.
NCA branch commander David Norris said: “The underwater scooter was like something out of a Bond movie. These criminals were going to use it to dive beneath the ship under the cover of darkness and recover the cocaine, worth tens of millions of pounds.”
The NCA Boarding Policing Command’s 600 officers include those based at ports and airports, and 120 international liaison officers, who cover 150 countries.
Border Force, which is part of the Home Office, has five Portsmouth-based cutters which patrol the coasts to intercept drugs, other illegal goods and people traffickers.
Its officers board some 2,000 vessels a year in UK waters.
Last year, they also found 1,260 kilos of cocaine aboard ships arriving at UK ports worth more than £250 million.