By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela said on Wednesday it had foiled smugglers trying to place cocaine on an Iberia flight to Spain while the number of people arrested in Venezuela over last week's discovery of 1.3 tonnes of the drug on an Air France flight rose to 17.
Venezuela's location on South America's Caribbean and Atlantic seaboards has made it a popular point for smuggling Colombian cocaine to U.S. and European markets.
President Nicolas Maduro's government says it is catching criminals in record numbers, but critics allege military and customs authorities are often taking part in the trade.
In the latest of near-daily announcements of small seizures, the National Anti-Drugs Office (ONA) said soldiers at Simon Bolivar international airport outside Caracas had found 9.7 pounds (4.4 kg) of cocaine hidden in a religious sculpture.
"The discovery was made ... during an inspection of goods that were going in Iberia flight No. IB6674 to Spain," it said, adding that a suspicious smell had led them to the red, yellow and gold icon of the Virgin Mary.
The Attorney General's office, meanwhile, said a total of 17 suspects - eight of them National Guard soldiers - had now been arrested in connection with the smuggling of 1.3 tonnes of cocaine on an Air France flight from Caracas to Paris.
The detainees include a local employee of Air France, as well as various members of an airport transport company.
The September 20 drug haul, France's biggest cocaine seizure, was valued at as much as 200 million euros ($270 million).
At the Paris end, three Italians and three Britons were arrested. Police there said the drugs were in luggage registered under false names on the flight to Charles de Gaulle airport.
Venezuela's opposition has seized on the case to berate Maduro's government for allegedly turning a blind eye to senior figures involved in trafficking.
"None of the well-connected ones will fall over this drugs' seizure," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles. "As always, lower-level officials pay but the big fish are untouchable."
Officials say that is politicized nonsense.
They point to statistics showing Venezuela has arrested more than 6,400 people for trafficking and seized almost 37,000 kg (80,000 pounds) of various drugs since the start of this year.
(Editing by Diego Ore and Cynthia Osterman)