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GARDAÍ WERE last night questioning three British men arrested after the largest cocaine seizure in the history of the State.
A yacht carrying an estimated 1.7 tonnes of the drug, worth €500 million, was detained off the west Cork coast.
In "Operation Seabight", which involved gardaí, Customs and the Naval Service, the LE Niamh detained the 18m (60ft) yacht, Dances with Wolves , 257km (160 miles) west of Mizen Head.
A boarding party from the LE Niamh carried out a search of the yacht in an operation late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning and found a large number of packets of cocaine.
Initial estimates suggest that the haul exceeds the 1.5 million tonnes of drugs, worth €440 million, recovered last year from Dunlough Bay near Mizen Head in west Cork.
Naval personnel detained the three crew on board, three Britons ranging in age from 44 to 52, and transferred them to the LE Niamh while a Naval Service party remained on board to bring Dances with Wolves under escort from the LE Róisín into Castletownbere.
The yacht was last night making good progress despite strong gales and was due to arrive in Castletownbere sometime around 7am this morning when Garda technical experts will begin a forensic examination of the drugs haul on board.
While gardaí, Customs and Naval Service personnel were last night reluctant to reveal exact details about the seizure, The Irish Times understands that Dances with Wolves had been tracked by international agencies since she left the Caribbean about four weeks ago.
It is believed the drugs were not intended for the Irish market and were more likely to have been destined for the UK. It was unclear last night whether the drug smugglers intended landing the drugs in Ireland for transhipment.
Drug traffickers smuggling cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela typically bring the drugs across the Atlantic in a mother ship which meets up with a local boat off the Irish or UK coast and the drugs are transferred to the local vessel in a bid to avoid attention.
Naval Service personnel are expected to begin studying charts and maps found on board Dances with Waves to try and establish the yacht's exact route and her intended destination. Gardaí will also examine satellite and other communications equipment on board for any phone records that would indicate its movements.
The three Britons were arrested when they were brought ashore at the pier in Castletownbere at about 7pm and were being detained yesterday under drugs trafficking legislation, which allows for detention for up to seven days without formal charge.

Up to 40 gardaí from the Garda National Drugs Unit, backed up by armed officers from the west Cork division, were waiting for the three suspects. Two of the men were brought to Bantry Garda station and the third to Bandon station for questioning.
The operation received assistance from the Serious Organised Crime Agency in the UK, which targets drug traffickers and other major criminals. It also involved the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre - Narcotics, which is headquartered in Lisbon and which collects and analyses information on drug trafficking into Europe, in particular from South America.
Ireland, along with the UK, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal signed a treaty in September 2007 establishing the centre, and personnel from both Customs and the Garda work with the agency in Lisbon.
Customs and police forces from all seven states exchange intelligence on drug trafficking while also identifying the availability of naval resources to facilitate national drug interdiction operations, particularly in the Atlantic.
IRISH TIMES
 
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