July 4, 2008

South Korean Police Arrest Drug Smugglers Said Linked to Taleban

Text of report in English by South Korean news agency Yonhap

[By Kim Hyon]

SEOUL, July 4 (Yonhap) - Several Afghan and Pakistani men with apparent ties to the Taleban were arrested in suburban Seoul on charges of smuggling tonnes of a chemical agent used in making heroine, police said Friday.

The suspects - two Afghans and three Pakistanis who operated in separate groups - attempted to use South Korea, a relatively drug- free nation where monitoring is loose, as a shipping point for massive quantities of acetic anhydride destined for southern Afghanistan, the National Police Agency said in a press conference.

"They have admitted that the agent's final recipient was the Taleban, but they are denying that they are members of the Taleban. We are going to further investigate," said Kim Ki-yong, a foreign affairs investigation officer.

Police confiscated 12 tonnes of acetic anhydride in a chemical engineering factory in Ansan, an industrial suburb of Seoul, where the two Afghans were arrested. The chemical agent was disguised as motor oil for shipment, police said.

In the separate operation by the three Pakistanis - who were also arrested in a Seoul suburb - police suspect about 50 tonnes of the substance have already ended up in the hands of the Taleban. The chemical agent was shipped under the guise of being hydrogen peroxide solution, a disinfectant, from April 2007 to March this year.

The operations were funded by Hawala, a huge money broker network based mainly in the Middle East, police said. The cost of the entire 62 tonnes of acetic anhydride is not huge - about 360 million won (US$344,800) - but could be used to produce nearly 30 tonnes of heroin that will generate massive profits, Kang said.

"The suspects had money transferred from accounts suspected to be linked to Hawala, and they acknowledged they had received orders from the Taleban," Kang said.

The acetic anhydride was originally imported from Japan through several Korean dealers, who are now being questioned, police said.

The investigation started in March after the International Criminal Police Organization discovered 14 tonnes of the agent, whose shipping origin was Korea, in Karachi, a bustling port in southern Pakistan, and notified the Korean police.

Acetic anhydride is also used for producing trinitrotoluence, a chemical explosive more commonly known as TNT, but police suspect heroine was the purpose of the smuggling, considering the costs.

According to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan produced 8,200 tonnes of opium base last year, 92 per cent of the opium produced worldwide.

Seventy per cent of the Afghan product, or 5,700 tonnes, was converted to 820 tonnes of heroine or morphine for worldwide trafficking.

Earlier this year, 23 South Korean missionaries were captured and held hostage in Afghanistan by members of the Taleban.

Two of the hostages were executed before the South Korean government reached a deal with the Taleban to withdraw troops from the war-torn nation.

Originally published by Yonhap news agency, Seoul, in English 0306 4 Jul 08.

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