A RECORD haul of cocaine worth more than €500m was dramatically seized off the south-west coast yesterday in a sweeping international 'sting' operation.
The 'sting' -- dubbed Operation Seabight -- had been co-ordinated by four international police forces, including the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in the UK, and involved the yacht 'Dances with Waves' being tracked by satellites all the way across the Atlantic from the Caribbean.
The smuggling operation is believed to have involved a major Anglo-Spanish gang with strong links to a Colombian drugs cartel.
Three men -- two Britons and a man travelling with Irish identity papers -- were detained after a 60-foot yacht was stopped and boarded around 170 miles off the west Cork coast at approximately 10pm on Wednesday night.
The yacht was immediately ordered into Castletownbere in West Cork with a Naval Service escort. The three detained men are all aged between 44 and 52.
It is suspected that between one-and-a-half and two tonnes of cocaine is contained within the vessel's hull storage compartment in a series of plastic-wrapped packages.
Samples of the suspected drugs were rushed ashore and were taken to the State Laboratory for analysis as to its purity and point of origin. Senior garda sources indicated that, depending on the final weight and purity of the cocaine, the value could reach €700m.
Ireland's previous record cocaine haul came at Dunlough Bay in West Cork just 17 months ago and involved €440m of Colombian cocaine which was traced to the Medellin area.
The fourth and final gang member in the Dunlough Bay operation was sentenced just 24 hours before the latest cocaine seizure.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen led the tributes last night to the Joint Drugs Taskforce for the greatest seizure coup in Irish history. "A massive drugs haul like this should not be seen just in terms of the hundreds of millions of euro of drugs seized, but also in terms of the lives saved and the misery avoided as a result," he said.
Last night, the yacht was being escorted into Castletownbere in West Cork by the Naval Service vessel LE Roisin but its progress was delayed by stormy seas gusting to Force 7.
The vessel was due to arrive in the early hours of this morning and will immediately be cordoned off at an isolated pier outside Castletownbere pending a detailed forensic and technical examination.
Gardai arranged for the transfer of the three men ashore ahead of the vessel last night. They were taken to port on board the Customs & Excise cutter which linked up with the Naval Service vessel, LE Niamh, at Castletownbere.
The men were then transferred ashore to be taken to Bantry and Bandon Garda Stations.
The men can now be detained for up to seven days for questioning under drug trafficking regulations.
Gardai stressed last night that Operation Seabight will continue for some time -- and may involve further arrests overseas.
"A number of individuals have been arrested during a boarding of a 60-foot yacht by a Naval boarding team from the Naval vessel LE Niamh," a garda spokesman confirmed.
"A substantial quantity of suspect packages of what is believed to be cocaine with an estimated street value of approximately €500m, subject to forensic analysis, have been detected on board the yacht and are being brought to an Irish port for examination by Customs and garda officers," he added.
"The operation is expected to continue for some time. The boarding operation was undertaken by Naval boarding teams in adverse weather conditions and was executed expeditiously."
Gardai said the operation, which had been ongoing for several weeks, also involved a number of foreign law enforcement agencies and used intelligence gathered by the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC) in Lisbon, of which Ireland is a member.
Defence Minister Willie O'Dea hailed the seizure last night as a landmark success in the ongoing war against drugs -- and a prime example of inter-service co-operation.
"I congratulate the Naval Service on this hugely successful operation. It is clear evidence that Ireland has a Naval Service that is a multi-skilled, highly trained force," he said.