Australian police have said they have seized the world's largest haul of the illegal drug, ecstasy. The discovery of almost five tons of the drug has lead to a series of raids across Australia and Europe and the arrest of at least 16 people. Senior officers have described the operation as a major victory in the fight against international drug syndicates. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
Fifteen million ecstasy pills were found by Australian customs officers hidden in cans of tomatoes in a shipping container from Italy. It arrived in the southern city of Melbourne in the middle of last year and prompted a lengthy international police investigation.
The discovery resulted in raids across Australia and also in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. More than a dozen people have been arrested. In Canberra, Australian Attorney-General Robert McClelland said that Australia had shown it was not a soft target for drug smugglers.
Australian federal police commissioner Mick Keelty said the operation had landed a telling blow in the fight against drug trafficking.
"It is classic organized crime and we have done our best to shut down the syndicate. Those alleged to have been involved will appear before courts this morning. Sixteen people thus far have been arrested," he said. "Our estimation and our intelligence indicate that this syndicate is alleged to be involved in something in the order of 60 percent of importations coming into south-east Australia."
Australian authorities say the drugs were worth about $400 million. Police officials say it is the world's single largest seizure of ecstasy tablets. The banned amphetamine is a stimulant with mild hallucinogenic properties. An illicit trade has flourished in Australia over the years.
When the drugs were discovered in the shipping container last June they were replaced by a harmless substitute and kept under close surveillance by investigators.
The breakthrough came when another shipment of 150 kilograms of cocaine arrived in Australia last month, which lead to the raids across several countries.
Newspaper reports have suggested that among those targeted by the police were Australians allegedly linked to the Italian mafia in the New South Wales fruit-growing town of Griffith, as well as others associated with an outlawed motorcycle gang.
Senior police officers in Australia have said that more arrests are expected as the investigation continues.