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Australia police seize huge cocaine haul in Pacific

Illustration: Australian police have seized 750 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the engine compartment of a yacht off Vanuatu, following a multinational trafficking operationAFP/File

Australian police said Friday they had seized 750 kilograms (1,650 pounds) of cocaine in Vanuatu following a multinational investigation into yachts trafficking drugs in the South Pacific.

Australian Federal Police, Australian Customs and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration said they had collaborated with South Pacific countries for several years to target criminal organisations using the region as a transit point.

The probe led officers to a yacht called the "Raj" docked in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila earlier this week and it was seized by local authorities.

Australia and US officers travelled to Vanuatu on Monday and discovered an estimated 750 kilograms of cocaine worth some Aus$370 million (US$334 million) hidden in the lower engine compartments and the keel area of the hull.

Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Ramzi Jabbour said criminal networks would find it harder and harder to operate given the cooperation between of multiple law enforcement and border protection agencies in the South Pacific.

"We are well aware that international criminals see Australia as a lucrative market for their drugs, but we will continue to work closely with our partners to identify syndicates such as these," he said.

The agencies said since they began cooperating on Project Cringle in 2010, close to two tonnes of cocaine destined for Australia had been seized from five vessels, with authorities in Tonga, the Cook Islands and New Caledonia also involved.

These seizures include the discovery in November 2012 of some 200 kilograms of cocaine on a yacht in Tonga which also held the decomposing body of a man, and some 200 kilograms found on a yacht in waters off New Caledonia earlier that year.

Australian authorities have also uncovered more than 760 kilograms of the drug in two separate seizures in Queensland since late 2010.