French police nab frogmen smuggling cocaine strapped to ships

NICE, France, April 25 (Reuters) - Police in France and the Netherlands have broken up a smuggling ring that used torpedo-shaped containers, cargo ships and frogmen for years to ship cocaine from South America to Europe’s largest commercial port.

One hundred kilos of cocaine were seized, three Frenchmen arrested and nine others questioned this month after a year-long investigation, a police source told Reuters.

Narcotics agents got wind of the scheme last June when bemused port police fished a diver - complete with an underwater propulsion vehicle - out of pitch-black waters near Fos-sur-Mer, a major oil port on France’s Mediterranean coast, in the middle of the night.

The man identified only as Marco, 56, was previously known to police as one suspected author of a 1992 heist in which 22 million euros ($29 mln) were stolen from a branch of the Bank of France.

After releasing him, Police tracked Marco for a year, finally trailing him and two associates as they drove from southern France to the Dutch port of Rotterdam on April 16 in rented cars loaded with heavy diving equipment.

The men never got to make their dive.

Before they reached the water, police arrested them and seized their gear, which included two propulsion vehicles and inflatable parachutes used to bring heavy loads to the surface.

Bolted to the hull of a Dutch-flagged cargo ship that departed from Venezuela with a stop in the Dutch Caribbean, police in the Netherlands found a rusting torpedo-shaped metal tube 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) long, stuffed with cocaine worth up to 7 million euros on the street.

The scheme had likely been ongoing for years with a transatlantic trip every six months, the source said.

The three men are due to be transferred back to France. Five of those questioned have been placed under formal investigation on suspicion of belonging to the ring. The police source said the investigation was ongoing.

$1 = 0.7695 euros Reporting by Matthias Galante; Writing by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Toby Chopra