Brittany Keogh is a reporter for the New Zealand Herald

Big cocaine bust off NSW coast; NZ boat owner arrested and charged

A 50ft New Zealand yacht carrying 1.4 tonnes of cocaine was swarmed by Australian Maritime Border Command officers in the biggest drug bust in Australasian history just before midnight on Thursday.

The boat, named Elakha, was moored in Tauranga and left New Zealand in early January, sailing to meet a "mothership" in the South Pacific Ocean to pick up the drugs before being intercepted about 300km off the coast of Sydney, Australian Federal Police allege.

Its Kiwi owner - a 63-year-old man - and a 54-year-old dual Swiss/Fijian national were onboard the boat when the seize took place.

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Both men have been arrested and charged with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug. They will appear in the Central Local Court in Australia today.

The crime carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

A large quantity of blocks of cocaine were stowed onboard Elakha in black bags, authorities said. The haul had a street value of AUD $312 million.

The AFP released images of a yacht moored at a dock and officers taking packages from the vessel.

Some of the cocaine haul is loaded into the back of a truck by Federal Police in Sydney.
Some of the cocaine haul is loaded into the back of a truck by Federal Police in Sydney.

Six people have been charged following the interception of the cocaine.
Six people have been charged following the interception of the cocaine.

The drugs were destined for Australia, but authorities feared some may have entered New Zealand, Customs' deputy comptroller operations Bill Perry said.

He confirmed the bust was the largest drug haul in New Zealand history and praised the New Zealand Customs officers who worked on the operation for their "really tenacious thorough work".

In addition to the Kiwi and Fijian/Swiss national, police have arrested four Australian men and have charged three of them with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug.

Police allege that the trio - aged 62, 63 and 66 - met up on the NSW south coast, where they planned take a motorboat out on to the water to meet the Elakha on Friday morning and bringing back the drugs.

The New Zealand Customs Service discovered the plan to import the illegal class A drug just over three years ago.

The service alerted the AFP of the alleged conspiracy in August 2014, six months into its operation.

About 150 members of Australian, New Zealand, Fijian and French Polynesian authorities, including six or seven New Zealand Customs officers, were involved.

The result of the operation was "a testament to the officers' drive and determination", AFP acting deputy commissioner operations Neil Gaughan said.

"It also highlights the importance of our close working relationships with our local and internal law enforcement partners - without which this operation could not have succeeded," said Gaughan.

The AFP's deputy commissioner operations Michael Outram said police hoped the operation's success would send "a strong message" to anyone thinking of smuggling drugs.

"No matter how innovative or complex their ways are, our evolving detection methods and resources, including at sea, will keep up with them."

Air Commodore Jake Campbell, who is chief of operations at Australia's Maritime Border Command, said the agency's highly trained personnel used advanced technology to target, detect and seize illicit drugs.

The operation demonstrated the strong partnerships and co-operation between New Zealand authorities and those from our close Pacific neighbours, Jamie Bamford, group manager of intelligence, investigations and enforcement at the New Zealand Custom's Service, said.

"Our partnerships enable us to act as one and our sophisticated intelligence capabilities and commitment prevent drugs reaching our communities."

The most recent haul was the second massive narcotics seizure off the Australian coastline in recent weeks.

The yacht was intercepted off the New South Wales coast.
The yacht was intercepted off the New South Wales coast.

Just before Christmas 10 Chinese nationals were charged with attempting to smuggle 186 kg of cocaine.

The drugs, with an estimated street value of more than $60 million, were detected and seized after a commercial vessel was spotted acting suspiciously during a routine aerial patrol.

The vessel was put under surveillance and tracked around the Australian coastline before it was boarded on December 12.

Sixteen people are now facing charges relating to the intercept with Australian border authorities claiming two criminal drug syndicates have been successfully dismantled.

- NZ Herald

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