MANILA, Philippines ? Philippine authorities have seized 54 high-powered rifles worth P25 million from a foreign vessel off the coast of Mariveles, Bataan, thwarting a smuggling operation possibly related to the 2010 elections, a senior Customs intelligence official said Friday.
Fernandino Tuason, Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service (CIIS) chief, said his office had received information some politicians had ?ordered? the shipment of the Israeli-type Galil assault rifles from an international gun-running syndicate as part of their preparations for next year?s polls.
15 empty crates
Customs commissioner Napoleon Morales said the guns were concealed in four wooden crates placed inside the cargo hold.
He said another crate contained slings, magazines and bayonets for some of the firearms.
Morales said they also found 15 empty wooden crates on the cargo ship, prompting them to suspect that the alleged smugglers had already unloaded most of the contraband, possibly at sea.
He said he also got information that a yacht was seen ferrying ?something from the ship? a few hours before the vessel was raided by agents of the Bureau of Customs and Philippine Coast Guard around 4 p.m. Thursday.
?We are closely coordinating with the Coast Guard as we try to recover the yacht which was seen loading some cargoes from the ship,? he said.
?We already have names, some are candidates, others are supporters,? Tuason, speaking in Filipino, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a phone interview. ?I cannot give you their names because we are still verifying. Once we have verified we will issue a press release.?
?The election season is fast coming. It?s highly probable that this [shipment] is election-related,? he said.
But Tuason said they were not ruling out other angles.
?We do not discount the possibility that the guns could be used in a destabilization plot against the government and for terrorist activities,? he added.
He said they were also checking the identities of the Filipino contacts of the crew members of MV Captain Ufuk, the Panamanian-registered cargo vessel which tried to bring in the firearms through the Port of Mariveles.
According to Tuason, the ship?s 13 Georgian crew members and its South African captain could be part of a big-time international syndicate behind gun running in Asia and Africa.
He said: ?Transnational crimes such as this do not involve ordinary persons. The suspects could be members of a big group of gun runners.?
Although Galils are usually made in Israel, the ones seized from the Panamanian ship were all made in Indonesia, Tuason said.
Morales said he had sought the help of the Philippine National Police and the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to recover the other firearms.
Coast Guard chief Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said they were alerted by Customs personnel on Thursday morning about the presence of the 2,400-ton cargo ship, which was anchored some 500 meters off the Port of Mariveles.
When Coast Guard personnel checked their records, Tamayo said his men were surprised to discover that the ship did not notify any of their stations.
He said oncoming foreign vessels must advise the Coast Guard of their coming at least 48 hours before arrival.
?We were also notified that there were activities near the ship. That?s when we suspected that there?s something wrong with that vessel,? he said.
Tuason said documents recovered from the vessel showed it left a seaport in Turkey and had briefly stopped in Malaysia and Indonesia.
The ship, he said, was also scheduled to sail to Batangas City.
The crew members were all cooperative and calm during the search of the ship, he added.
Tuason said the ship did not have any cargo aside from the crates containing the firearms.
Morales said they had already filed cases of smuggling and violation of maritime and immigration laws against the arrested foreigners, who are now under the custody of the Bureau of Immigration.
Officials identified the ship captain as Lawrence John, a South African. Other officials said the crew included not only Georgians but also Jordanians.
The PNP is also filing charges of illegal possession of firearms under Presidential Decree 1866, the Central Luzon regional police director, Chief Supt. Leon Nilo de la Cruz, said.
Owned by local firm
De la Cruz said there had been no evidence so far linking the arms cache to terror or destabilization plots.
?We?re still looking into those,? he told the Inquirer.
John and his crew are being held on the ship that has been secured by the PNP, Bureau of Customs, Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Army?s 3rd Infantry Battalion and Special Forces, Senior Supt. Manuel Gaerlan, provincial police chief, told the Inquirer by phone.
Gaerlan declined to name a Makati City-based company that supposedly imported the firearms.
But the Associated Press said that while the ship had a Panamanian registry it appeared to be owned by La Plata Trading Inc., a local company.
The seizure comes amid a police campaign to rid the country of unregistered firearms blamed for fueling crime, terrorism and insurgencies.
RP as transit point
In a press briefing at the Port of Mariveles, Morales said the rifles appeared to have been the ?pirated versions? of those originally manufactured in Israel.
A source engaged in the sale of firearms said the Philippines was being used as a ?transit point? for illegally imported guns manufactured in Southeast Asia. From the Philippines, the guns are resold to Japan and other countries.
The Associated Press reported unidentified officials as saying they suspected the intended recipients of the guns could be either Muslim radicals, communist rebels or private armies of politicians taking part in next year?s elections.
The crew do not speak English, De la Cruz said. They did not provide any documentation to prove the cargo was legitimate.
?We?re having a hard time talking to them,? De la Cruz said, adding an interpreter would help in the investigation. ?They are either pretending they don?t know how to speak English or they simply do not know how.? With reports from Associated Press and Reuters