- Freighter was ‘buzzed’ by a helicopter from the Italian coastguard
- Ship was Tanzania-registered, with nine people on board jumping into sea
- 30 tonnes of hash had been loaded on in Turkey
This is the dramatic moment when drug smugglers set fire to a ship carrying more than £50 million worth of hashish after being spotted by customs officials.
Thick, dense plumes of smoke quickly billowed from the bridge of the Gold Star freighter just minutes after it was ‘buzzed’ by a helicopter from the Italian coastguard.
The nine people on board the Tanzanian registered ship then jumped overboard as they attempted to avoid being arrested but they were miles out to sea and had to be plucked to safety.
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Italian customs officials intercepted the Gold Star as it sailed off the coast of Sicily in the Mediterranean following a tip off that it was carrying a huge consignment of drugs and she had been followed for several days before the operation was launched.
Besides a helicopter several fast patrol boats were used in the ‘raid’ and a search of the ship’s hold revealed a massive consignment of drugs, 30 tons of hashish which had been loaded on board in Turkey.
Italian officials said the crew were Syrian and Egyptians and before they could board the 82 metre 38-year-old ship they had to obtain permission from Tanzania where it was registered.
Firefighting boats had to be called in to put out the flames and the ship was today being towed to the Sicilian port of Syracuse where the arrested men were also being held before being questioned.
A spokesman for Italian Customs said: ‘The ship was intercepted after intelligence was received that it was carrying drugs – but we never expected such a huge consignment and for the crew to set her on fire.
‘The idea was no doubt to try and destroy the evidence so that we could have no case against them but their plan failed and the fire was put out and the drugs were found during the search.
‘Nine people on board jumped into the sea but they couldn’t get very far as they were several miles from shore and they had to be rescued by Italian customs officers.
‘The fire is now under control and the ship is being taken to a port where it will be thoroughly searched again and the nine crew members will be questioned by prosecutors.’