Sun, Jan 06, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Mali officials seize cocaine ingredients following shootout

AP , BAMAKO

Malian officials seized 750kg of ingredients used to make cocaine, following a nine-hour gunbattle with the suspected drug traffickers, customs officials said on Friday. No injuries were reported.

The operation occurred in Achiboro, located 1,300km northeast of Mali's capital, Bamako, on Tuesday, said the official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Customs officials hunted down the traffickers and "exchanged fire on all sides," he said.

The suspects abandoned their two cars and then fled in a third vehicle, vanishing in a part of the country that is home to the turbaned Tuareg rebels, desert nomads that have launched an insurgency.

But the customs official said there is no evidence to suggest the men of Ibrahim Bahanga, who have in the past been accused by the government of drug trafficking, were behind this incident.

Last week, Bahanga released 10 Malian soldiers and security guards that had been taken hostage months earlier after brokering an agreement with authorities. Details of the agreement, reached on Dec. 26, were not made public.

Mali had signed a peace deal with the Tuaregs last year to end a war started in the 1990s, and which resumed after a Tuareg attack in May 23, 2006. The government promised to increase the development of roads and other infrastructure in the impoverished north -- the Tuaregs' home.

But Bahanga's Tuareg faction refused to sign the peace deal, saying it did not do enough to help the Tuareg minority.

West Africa has become an entry point for cocaine destined for Europe, where its price is now double what it is in the US.

The drugs originate in South America and are then funneled to the countries on Africa's western seaboard.

It is a strategy designed to elude European airport security and coastal patrols with smugglers shipping drugs, as well as the ingredients used to make the drugs, in bulk to Africa's western coast. From there, they are parceled out to hundreds of individual smugglers who use fishing vessels, cars and their own bodies to sneak it north via countries like Mali into Europe.

The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime says the world's total supply is around 1 million kilograms a year. Interpol says 200,000kg to 300,000kg of the drug enters Europe via West Africa every year.

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