Orion patrol fingers possible al Qaeda drug boats

Sharp-eyed New Zealand military aircrew have been credited with spotting two sailing craft running drugs for suspected al Qaeda terrorists.

Defence Minister Mark Burton last night praised the 11 to 13 crew of an Air Force P-3K Orion patrolling the Gulf for "great work" as the United States began investigating whether their quarry was part of the terror network's global fundraising attempts.

Details of New Zealand's part in the operation, which ended when drugs potentially worth more than $11 million were seized from the two dhows at dawn yesterday in the North Arabian Sea, are classified.

Names of the Orion's 40 air and support crew involved with coalition forces in Operation Enduring Freedom are kept secret, as is the Middle Eastern country where they are based.

What US authorities were prepared to disclose yesterday was that the dhows were boarded 48 hours after the New Zealanders recognised them from an intelligence wanted list.

Other maritime patrol aircraft from Australia, Britain and the US joined the hunt, tracking them continuously until an American guided-missile cruiser ran them to ground at an undisclosed location.

A boarding crew from the USS Philippine Sea seized about 67kg of methamphetamines from one dhow and two bags containing 38kg of suspected pure heroin with a street value of up to US$7.3 million ($11.32 million) from the other.

But not before crew of the second boat were filmed from the air throwing about 200 other white bags overboard as they attempted to flee.

Twenty-one crew members of the two dhows were taken into US Navy custody for interrogation.

Neither their nationalities nor their port of origin have been disclosed.

A suspected al Qaeda link is being investigated in view of an associated seizure of two tonnes of hashish worth up to $15.5 million from a dhow in the Arabian Gulf six days ago. The US said it believed three of that boat's 12 crew had al Qaeda links.

It kept the seizure quiet until a day before the latest raid, but it was intelligence from the hashish boat which put it on alert for the two dhows detected by the New Zealand Orion.

US military chiefs have not said what evidence they have to establish "clear ties" between the hashish shipment and al Qaeda.

But if such links can be established, the seizures will be the first confirmation of long-held suspicions that the network is smuggling drugs.

A US fleet commander responsible for all multi-national maritime patrol aircraft in the region, Rear-Admiral Kenneth Deutsch, called the operation's success "a true testament to the strength of coalition teamwork in the global war on terrorism".

Mr Burton described the result as valuable recognition of New Zealand's contribution to the effort.

Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Bruce Ferguson said the Orion's contribution was what it was sent to the Gulf for last month, in the latest aircrew rotation of a mission which began in May.

"We should all be proud of the effort New Zealanders are making in the global fight," he said.

But Air Force spokesman Squadron Leader Ric Cullinane hinted earlier yesterday at other successes which the Kiwis had been prevented for security operational reasons from highlighting.

"My understanding is that these guys have been doing a pretty good job - this is just one that's been picked up," he said.

"They do a good job in that particular environment where they do pretty low-level flying over high-density shipping, down to 200ft at times, taking photos to identify those on board."

Although just one New Zealand Orion has been on patrol at a time in the Gulf, the New Zealanders had flown 100 "sorties" there by last month, equating to about 8.6 times around the world in day-on, day-off flying.