Traces of cocaine among the remains of a cargo plane recently discovered in West Africa suggest that large aircraft are increasingly being used to smuggle drugs and even weapons to the region, possibly benefiting terrorists, the U.N.'s anti-crime chief said Thursday.
The burned debris of a Boeing cargo plane was discovered on Nov. 2 in the Gao region of Mali, said Antonio Maria Costa, head of the Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. It is assumed to have landed on a clandestine landing strip and either failed to take off again or was destroyed on purpose, he said, adding that "ample traces of cocaine" were found on board.
While the origins of the plane are still unclear, Venezuelan and Colombian air traffic controllers in late October reported "strange behavior" from a Boeing cargo plane that eventually went missing in southwest Venezuela, Costa said. Authorities in Mali, Interpol and the United Nations are investigating, he added.
Costa raised the possibility that the plane may also have been carrying weapons since the region was notorious not only for the smuggling of drugs, but also arms and even humans.
"The worrisome part is that it landed in an area which is in the hands of insurgents, so there's a fear that there were probably also weapons in there," Costa told The Associated Press. "This is definitely ... a structural change, a seismic change in the business of trafficking."
Costa, when asked who could be involved, suggested that dangerous groups _ even terrorists _ might be playing a role.
"It could be even more sinister because of the region where it landed," he said. "Let's not jump to conclusions, but we potentially have a situation where at least one aircraft, capable of carrying 10 tons of cocaine, makes a delivery into a region controlled by anti-government forces."
Both Tuareg rebels and Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa are known to be active in the area.
Air traffic controllers in Mali had noticed "suspicious aerial activity" in the past, Costa said, suggesting this may not be the first aircraft with a possibly illegal load to end up in the region.
Costa made the comments in an interview after a Vienna meeting aimed at raising funds for a plan designed to reduce the vulnerability of West Africa to drugs and crime.
Last month, Costa said West Africa was on the verge of becoming a source for drugs as well as a transit point, telling the U.N. Security Council that, since July, his office and Interpol have been investigating numerous West African sites where they found large amounts of chemicals used to produce high grade cocaine and manufacture Ecstasy.
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