Belgium raids ‘sprawling’ crime ring with dawn busts

Brussels, March 9 (AFP/APP): Police in Belgium staged a vast nationwide operation against drug traffickers Tuesday, with the main focus on the port of Antwerp, a major hub for Europe’s cocaine trade.

More than 1,500 police conducted some 200 searches simultaneously from just before dawn in “one of the biggest operations ever organised on Belgian territory,” a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office told AFP. A law enforcement official said they targeted “a sprawling criminal organisation”.

“More than a dozen arrests” have so far been made, the official said, without giving a precise figure. The operation was being steered by the federal prosecutor’s office and the Antwerp public prosecutor’s office.

According to federal prosecutors, the operation mainly targeted drug traffickers, particularly those involved in the cocaine trade, as well as organised crime gangs connected to them. Although the traffickers had international links, “at this stage” only Belgian authorities were involved in the operation, said a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, Eric Van Duyse.

He said the raids were the culmination of an investigation conducted for the past two and a half years. The Port of Antwerp, Europe’s second-biggest port after Rotterdam, is often the scene of police and customs operations.

Last year, an all-time record of 65.5 tonnes of cocaine were seized in the port. Since 2013, intercepted volumes of the drug have gone up by a magnitude of around 14. The drugs come from Latin America — principally Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador — and are usually found hidden away in cargo containers offloaded from ships.

Antwerp has been struck by a crime wave connected to the drug trade, including grenade attacks and murders.

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