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Air France in spotlight as nine held over record cocaine bust

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Nine people are being held in France and Venezuela in connection with the seizure of 1.3 tonnes of cocaine stashed in suitcases on an Air France flight, police said Monday.

Confirmation that six people were in custody in France followed Venezuela's announcement on Sunday that three members of their security services had been detained on suspicion of involvement in smuggling that led to the biggest cocaine seizure ever on French soil.

The drugs with an estimated street value of 200 million euros ($270m) were found inside 30 suitcases on a Caracas-Paris flight, according to French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who announced the seizure on Saturday.

Venezuela's justice and interior minister, Miguel Rodriguez, said Sunday that an officer from the anti-drug unit of the Bolivarian National Guard and two National Guard sergeants had been arrested.

"The information that we have is that the (alleged traffickers) belong to a mafia of British and Italian nationals, who buy drugs in South America and then distribute it in Europe," Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez told a briefing.

Rodriguez said it was highly likely the smugglers had accomplices within Air France working with them. The airline has ordered an internal investigation and says it is working closely with the police over an incident that has, at the very least, exposed serious lapses in its security procedures in Caracas.

Police sources said none of the six people detained in France was a French national or employee of Air France.

The six suspects come from two European countries, one of which is Italy, they said, adding that the smuggling was most likely organised by the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia said to be behind 80 percent of the cocaine trade in Europe.

Under special powers used for investigations involving organised crime, the suspects can be held for up to 96 hours without charge.

The record seizure followed an investigation lasting several weeks which also involved British, Dutch and Spanish police.

According to police sources, the drugs arrived in France on September 11 but were not seized until the 20th, the investigators apparently having allowed time to see who was picking them up.

Part of the haul was seized at the airport and some on a truck headed towards Luxembourg -- a route which suggests the end destination could have been the Netherlands or Britain.

Aviation security expert Christophe Naudin said the smuggling had to be an Air France inside job to some extent, given how the suitcases appear to have been loaded onto the plane without going through the normal check-in procedures.

"By definition there must have been help from people inside Air France's operation in Caracas to get the bags labelled," Naudin said.

"Then there must have been others involved in Paris to ensure they did come out on the conveyer belt and then get them out through the freight area."

Cocaine comes from coca leaves grown in countries like Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Venezuela does not produce cocaine, according to United Nations monitors, but traffickers do use its ports and airports to smuggle drugs to consumer countries.

Experts say the European market has been targetted increasingly by traffickers because the North American market is saturated with over supply.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130923/air-france-spotlight-nine-held-over-record-cocaine-bust