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Sierra Leone Arrests Foreign Suspects in $30 Million Drug Case

Sierra Leone police say they are questioning several suspects, including airport officials and people identified as South Americans in connection with a small plane loaded with cocaine that landed Sunday in the country's capital. Brent Latham has this report from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Police in Freetown say they have apprehended a substantial number of suspects in connection with a small plane that landed there Sunday with a cargo of about 700 kilograms of cocaine worth $30 million.

Police spokesman Karefa Daboh says authorities have arrested several foreign nationals.

"They are white people, that is all I really can say," Daboh said. "Some of them have accents which are very queer. We suspect some of them to be from the Americas, or South America, or what have you."

Daboh said police had also taken a number of airport officials in for questioning. He said the police are investigating the possibility the airport workers were collaborating with the suspects.

"There have been lapses at the airport, and that is why we are investigating some police who were at the airport, the airport personnel, and some people who were involved in operations at the airport," Daboh explained. "If we actually find the lapses we suspect we will find, we want immediately to go forward to find out whether those lapses were a result of connivance with the other criminals to do what they did."

A reporter in Freetown, Kelvin Lewis, says the suspects are believed to be Colombians.

He says the suspected pilot was captured late Sunday in the north of the country, at a checkpoint near a busy crossroads. The other foreign nationals in custody were captured in Freetown.

Lewis says along with the foreigners, the chief of airport police, the airport manager, and the control tower operator were among those taken in for questioning. He says the airport workers are suspected to have known about the pending arrival of the plane, but did nothing to alert the national police.

He says there was a truck waiting for the plane when it landed.

"The pilots are believed to have come down to the waiting vehicle and fled," Lewis said. "The vehicle had apparently crashed through the gates. We went out to look at it. Close to the gate five guns were found. Four of them AK-47s and one AK-58, and about 300 rounds of ammunition was found on the ground there. "

Lewis says Sierra Leone's president visited the scene Sunday and took the guns and ammunition with him to Freetown in his presidential car.

Lewis and other reporters say the cocaine has been turned over to U.N. security forces. But police spokesman Daboh says the police still have the illicit cargo in their protection.

The incident is the latest in a series involving suspected South American drug traffic through West Africa. Last week, the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said traffickers have learned the region is in his words "very weak and very vulnerable" to drug shipments.