Fri, Mar 24, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Australia bombs N Korean drugs ship as warning

AFP , SYDNEY

Australia yesterday bombed and sank a North Korean freighter caught smuggling heroin into the country three years ago, saying the military exercise should serve as a warning to Pyongyang to halt its rogue trading in drugs and weapons.

The 3,500-tonne Pong Su had been towed about 140km into the Pacific Ocean off Australia's eastern coast, where it was scuttled by an air force F-111 fighter-bomber, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said.

The freighter was captured by elite Australian troops in April 2003 following a four-day high-seas chase by the navy.

Four crew members later pleaded guilty to smuggling 150kg of heroin worth an estimated US$115 million ashore near Melbourne in a rubber dingy.

But a Melbourne jury earlier this month acquitted the ship's captain and three officers -- one of them an official of North Korea's ruling party -- saying there was insufficient proof they knew the drugs were on board the ship.

The Australian government however reiterated yesterday its belief that the North Korean government was involved in the smuggling and said the decision to sink the ship in a high-profile military operation should serve as a warning.

"It is appropriate that we publicly demonstrate our outrage at what has happened by sinking this ship," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.

"We are concerned about possible links between the North Korean ship and the North Korean government, and we have raised that with the North Korean government on a number of occasions, most recently in the last couple of weeks," he said.

North Korea has denied any link to the smuggling, but Downer said it was hard to imagine a shipping company acting on its own in Pyongyang's Stalinist-style "command economy."

"I mean this isn't, after all, a private sector economy where private companies are doing things on their own accord," he said.

"North Korea has been involved in illicit drug trade, North Korea has been involved in illicit financial dealings and North Korea has been involved in the illicit trade in WMD [weapons of mass destruction] technology over quite some years." he said.

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