Australian Federal Police have hailed the work of Papua New Guinea counterparts for their collaboration in a major drug bust.

Last Friday PNG police seized over 500 kilogrammes of cocaine – with a street value estimated at $US58-million – allegedly destined for Australia.

Several days earlier, the drugs were believed to have been hastily removed from a small airplane which crashed on take-off on a remote airstrip near Port Moresby on the return leg of an apparent drug smuggling run from Queensland.

The seizure is one of the results of a two year operation by an Australian Federal Police-led Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce, which saw the AFP collaborating with PNG police particularly in recent weeks.

PNG’s Police commissioner David Manning said that as part of this collaboration, they were tracking the movement of a Cessna aircraft as it flew in from Australia off radar.

“There was a signing off of an agreement between both the constabulary and the AFP to have a controlled delivery of what we knew at the time to be a substantial amount of cocaine.”

While the AFP’s plan was likely to have been to swoop on the cocaine cache when the Cessna arrived back in Queensland, the plane crashed and never returned. However AFP officers swooped on alleged conspirators anyway.

Five members of a Melbourne-based criminal syndicate, with alleged links to Italian organised crime, were arrested and charged for conspiring to import the cocaine into Australia.

An assistant AFP commissioner, Lisa Gayle, said the bust “shows what can be achieved with the partnerships the AFP has built with our law enforcement colleagues nationally and internationally”.

“I would like to acknowledge the co-operation and excellent efforts of the Papua New Guinea authorities who have been involved in this investigation leading to the seizure of a significant amount of illicit drugs,” she said.

Gayle said the alleged syndicate conspirators arrested in Australia face maximum sentences of life imprisonment, also warning that the AFP would work to track down other syndicates involved in smuggling drugs into Australia.

While the Royal PNG Constabulary has been praised for its work in this busy, it remains to be seen whether police will pursue local players who were involved in the trafficking.

The plane crash, bust and subsequent revelations about an erstwhile, politically-connected owner of the Cessna have fuelled speculation that powerful individuals in PNG are involved in lucrative regional drug smuggling networks.

PNG with its weak border security has become an easy transit point for movement of drugs like methamphetamine from Asia or South America and on to regional countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

The cocaine cache seized last week was most likely taken to PNG’s mainland by sea, however its planned passage to Australia by air hit a snag.

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