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CARACAS/PARIS – Venezuela has arrested three National Guard officials for alleged involvement in smuggling 1.3 tonnes of cocaine on an Air France flight from Caracas to Paris, the South American nation's public prosecutor's office said on Sunday.
The seizure of the cocaine haul valued at as much as 200 million euros ($270.19 million) comes as Washington is again accusing Venezuela of failing to adequately fight trafficking of cocaine from neighboring Colombia.
Public prosecutors will charge a first sergeant, a second sergeant and a first lieutenant for "allegedly committing crimes established by Venezuelan law," the prosecutor's office said, without offering details of what charges it would file.
It added that authorities in Paris had detained six people, three of whom are Italian and three British.
The drugs were stashed in suitcases that were registered under false names that did not correspond to passengers on the flight to Charles de Gaulle airport, French police sources told Reuters.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls estimated the cocaine shipment had a value of 50 million euros, while police and legal sources said the street value of the drug could be as much as 200 million euros.
"This marks the biggest seizure of cocaine ever made in mainland France as part of a judicial investigation," Valls told reporters on Saturday.
French authorities said the drugs were found earlier this month but details of the raid were only released over the weekend. Venezuelan authorities said the drugs were seized on Sept 20.
Air France said it was still trying to find out how the drugs were smuggled on board.
"Pending the results of these investigations, immediate measures have been taken to enhance our checks of baggage and goods on departure from certain sensitive destinations," the airline said in a statement.
Drug enforcement experts say Venezuela's location on South America's Caribbean and Atlantic seaboards makes it a preferred route for planes and ships carrying Colombian cocaine to the United States and Europe via Central America and Africa.
The United States has for over a decade accused Venezuela of turning a blind eye to drug smuggling, and has described several high-ranking military officials and ruling party allies as drug "kingpins."
The White House said in an annual report this month that Venezuela, along with Bolivia and Myanmar, had not made substantial efforts during the last 12 months to meet its obligations under global counter-narcotics agreements.
The government of President Nicolas Maduro, who won an election in April that followed Hugo Chavez's death from cancer, calls such criticism a politically motivated smear campaign.
He says anti-narcotics cooperation has actually improved since 2005, when Chavez kicked out the U.S. drug enforcement agents.
Last year, Venezuelan security forces working with Colombian authorities and U.S. and British intelligence agencies caught one of the most-wanted Colombian kingpins - Daniel "Crazy" Barrera - during an operation in a Venezuelan border city.
($1 = 0.7402 euros)
(Reporting by Gus Trompiz, Jean-Baptiste Vey and Nicolas Bertin in Paris; Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Eric Walsh)