A MASSIVE garda and customs search was mounted last night on board a ship suspected of being used by an international crime gang to carry illegal immigrants, it has been revealed.
A MASSIVE garda and customs search was mounted last night on board a ship suspected of being used by an international crime gang to carry illegal immigrants.
The operation was launched after the gardai were tipped off by the British authorities that the Mongolian-registered cargo coaster ship, which has been in European waters since last April, was heading here.
The suspect vessel, the Unique, had no visible means of support and had not picked up a cargo since September 25.
After almost three hours of searching last night, gardai and Customs officials were satisfied there were no smuggled immigrants on board or evidence of illegal trafficking in people.
But the Garda national immigration bureau decided to use its powers under the Aliens Act to refuse permission to the captain of the ship to dock in Dun Laoghaire.
A senior Garda officer explained last night: "We were not satisfied about the ship's bona fides. It has been travelling through European waters for several months without any apparent reason and we are not happy with its legitimacy."
This morning, garda officers will meet members of the harbour authority in Dun Laoghaire to discuss the fate of the ship and will also make contact with the Greek owners of the vessel.
But late last night there was no evidence that the ship had arrangements to collect a cargo here. It comprised a crew of seven, including some Bangladeshi, Russians and Lithuanians.
Gardai said three of the crew were permanent and the rest had been taken on temporarily. The vessel had sufficient supplies but the captain would be facilitated if he wanted to take more on board.
The immigration bureau and Customs were backed up in the search by members of the Garda national drugs unit and the dog unit, with armed support from the Special Branch.
They were taken out to the ship, which was docked a mile out from Dun Laoghaire, on board the Naval Service vessel, the LE Aoife, which had come up from Rosslare to join the operation.
The ship was first spotted in European waters in April and then went missing until August. When it resurfaced, its movements were closely monitored by the authorities in several countries and it was boarded by immigration officials from Denmark and Germany when it anchored in their waters.
Last Monday, the Unique was located off the French ferryport of Cherbourg and, after inquiries were carried out by the coastguard, it was ordered to leave French territorial waters. Its captain is understood to have said he was heading for Dublin.
But during its stay off the French ferryport, a number of small boats pulled alongside the mystery cargo ship and French inquiries are now being carried out to establish whether illegal immigrants were taken off the vessel.
On Tuesday the British authorities noted that the Unique was off the Isle of Wight and its movements were then monitored as it travelled up the south coast of England and headed up the channel for Dun Laoghaire.
After studying reports from the British authorities, senior garda officers decided to mount a major operation yesterday morning in preparation for the ship's arrival off the Irish coastline.
Gardai have said that they believed the detailed search of the ship could last for a number of days.