Afghan heroin stockpile is threat to UK, Blair warned

London Independent 01/06/03: Jason Bennetto

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Heroin is likely to continue flooding into Britain from a huge stockpile in Afghanistan, the Government has been warned by customs officials.

The drug appears to be as readily available as ever, despite a series of significant heroin seizures in recent months, according to officials.

Customs and Excise believe one explanation for the huge quantitiesbeing smuggled into Britain is that traffickers in Afghanistan have built up stockpiles after bumper crops in the 1990s. Drug enforcement agencies expected the supply of heroin to dwindle in 2002 as the poppy cultivation ban imposed by the old Taliban regime took hold, the deputy head of customs said. But to the surprise of customs and police, heroin prices remained stable, indicating that supplies were as plentiful as ever.

Tony Blair, who last year took a personal interest in how Britain was tackling the war on drugs, has been warned to expect traffickers to continue to travel to the country with millions of pounds worth of heroin. He was also told there was little hope of the situation improving in the near future.

Figures obtained by customs intelligence found traffickers in the UK mostly Turkish gangsters were charging dealers between 16,000 and 17,000 for a kilogram of the drug last January. That price remained unchanged throughout 2002.

An estimated 30 tonnes (1,000kg) of heroin is brought into the UK every year. Customs achieved a series of big heroin busts last year with a record 750,000kg of the narcotic seized in the past three months alone.

But the nature of one of the seizures caused alarm within customs intelligence. Last October, 300kg of heroin was found at Dover hidden among a consignment of water melons from Turkey. Officials were shocked such a large haul, worth 20m on the street, was hidden in such a crude way, and that traffickers still had that quantity of heroin available. "It was not far short of a kamikaze run", said one senior source.

Last December, 180kg of heroin was seized in Dover. In the same month, 200kg of the drug, destined for Britain, was confiscated by police in Poland.

Terry Byrne, director general of Customs and Excise's law enforcement division, said: "It is troubling that at the end of 2002 our heroin detections are at record levels but prices seem relatively stable.

"We had hoped that any stockpiling from the bumper harvest before the Taliban ban would by now have shown signs of being exhausted. It could well be ominous that they don't seem to have been. If current cultivation in Afghanistan produces bumper stockpiles, that could have a very damaging impact for more than just the next year.

"The international community has got to support the Afghanistan administration in doing something about this."

Drug enforcement agencies and ministers were pinning their hopes on international co-operation to stem the flow of heroin from Afghanistan, which provides 90 per cent of the narcotic in the UK.

Last year was expected to be a bumper year in Afghanistan, with about 270 tonnes produced. So far, little has reached Britain. An estimated 380 tonnes of heroin were produced in the record 1999 harvest.

A Prime Minister's "delivery unit" has been established to press for improvements in Britain's fight against drugs. One area it will examine is the lack of intelligence about the heroin market in the UK.

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