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Guinea-Bissau Drug Inquiry Falls Apart

Justice Ministry officials in Guinea-Bissau have expressed disappointment that a plane handed over to them by the military retained little evidence of possible cocaine smuggling after eight weeks in army hands. Brent Latham reports for VOA from our West Africa regional bureau in Dakar, some of the suspects have disappeared as well.

Officials in Guinea-Bissau say the plane, which landed at Bissau's airport on July 20, is of little use to them at this point in the investigation of alleged drug smuggling.

Justice Ministry officials believe the craft, which had been confiscated by military authorities, may have contained upwards of 500 kilograms of cocaine. The military had been holding the plane in a restricted zone of the airport for weeks, and had refused to allow government officials to inspect it.

Army leaders finally agreed to turn the plane over, but no evidence remains aboard the aircraft after eight weeks in military hands, says reporter Lassana Cassama.

Officials say apart from the disappeared cargo of drugs, which military officials say they incinerated, two black boxes have also been removed from the aircraft.

Seven people were arrested in connection with the plane's seizure. Those arrested included three Bissau-Guineans, a Venezuelan believed to have piloted the plane, and three Colombians. All have since been conditionally freed by a judge in Bissau.

Cassama says the Venezuelan is known to have left the country, and the whereabouts of the three Colombians are unknown. The four posted a combined bail of 82 million West African CFA, or about $200,000. The suspects were released in late August, and disappeared shortly after.

Earlier last month, the minister of justice and the attorney general revealed they had received death threats in connection with their roles in the investigation.

International authorities say Guinea-Bissau, one of the world's poorest countries, is under increasing threat of becoming a narco-state, run by South American drug cartels that would use the sparsely populated coastal nation as a transit point in shipping cocaine to Europe.

Since independence in 1974, Guinea-Bissau has experienced repeated episodes of political instability. Just last month, the coalition government fell when parliament was dissolved. A coup attempt, said to be led by the chief of the navy, followed, but was foiled by the government.