The cargo ship seized with a record £45m of illegal cigarettes on board was on the first in a series of five planned voyages from the Philippines to Ireland, it can be revealed.
An audacious plan to land a total of £200m of cigarettes in multiple shipments at Greenore, Co Louth, was foiled when Customs officers seized the MV Anne Scan.
Nine men arrested as part of the Customs Service operation have now been released and a file is being prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions, gardai said last night.
Security sources said last night it was their belief the shipment was a maiden run in a planned series of up to five huge shipments from the Philippines of illegal cigarettes hidden in animal feed.
“The intention of this Irish gang, with others contributing funding in return for big profits, was to move a shipment every two months, we think to flood Ireland and the UK with cheap cigarettes and make big, big money,” said one senior officer.
But instead of landing the 120 million cigarettes hidden in 1,489 bags at Greenore, the ship was seized and nine men arrested in a huge operation involving 150 officers from Revenue and Customs and Britain's Customs agency.
The scale of the smuggling attempt — the biggest Europe has seen — shocked investigators. One said: “We are still sitting here and asking ‘is this real?', because it is so completely out of the normal. This was done by major players.”
Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said the haul could have decimated tax revenues in the Republic.
It has emerged that, acting on intelligence provided from the Republic, the ship was tracked by the Royal Navy and satellite as it passed up the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to the Straits of Gibraltar, before it turned north for its Irish destination. The Naval Service took over ‘Operation Samhain' when the shipment — the first in what could have become a profitable smuggling route from south-east Asia — was dramatically seized.
Yesterday the MV Anne Scan was towed to Dublin Port by Naval vessels and its vast haul of up to 120m cigarettes was counted and removed for storage under the watch of armed gardai.
“The operation most likely involved more than one criminal gang with costs of up to €2.5m in cash being split among those involved,” said a security source.
Officers based at the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) in Brussels are poised to fly out to Manila in the Philippines to begin their inquiries accompanied by two Irish Revenue and Customs officers as early as tomorrow.
Officials in Brussels expect “the fullest co-operation” in their investigation.
Austin Rowan, the head of the Cigarette Taskforce attached to Brussels' Anti-Fraud Office, said the seizure was the biggest ever in Europe, dwarfing a cigarette haul in Spain in 1998. “We will be travelling to the Philippines as soon as we can” he said.