Police in Belgium and the Netherlands have made dozens of arrests in a vast operation against organised crime after an encrypted communications network popular with criminals was broken up, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Belgian police made 48 arrests as special units involving 1,500 officers in all carried out some 200 raids, mainly around the port of Antwerp, the authorities said.
They added that police seized €1.2 million in cash, as well as 15 illegal firearms, jewelry, diamonds, police uniforms and luxury cars.
There were no major incidents in what the authorities describe as "one of the biggest operations ever organised on Belgian soil". Several international organisations specialised in drug trafficking are said to have been dismantled.
It came after investigators cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC -- said to be installed on 171,000 phones worldwide -- and intercepted hundreds of millions of messages during a two-year investigation.
Belgian police chief Eric Snoeck said the operation had "put an end to the activities" of the Canada-based operator.
Phones equipped with its software enable encrypted messages and photos to be sent and received only by users of the network. Prosecutors say the intention is "to make detection by the police and pursuit by the courts as difficult as possible".
Record cocaine hauls
Belgian chief prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw added that the two-year investigation also helped seize more than 17 tonnes of cocaine.
With thousands of shipping containers reaching Antwerp every day, the Belgian port city is one of Europe’s main entry ports for the drug. Trafficking in the city -- organised partly from the Netherlands -- has led to a surge of violence recently, with gun battles and grenade attacks taking place.
Last year, authorities in Belgium and three other countries dismantled a drug trafficking network that shipped hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine into Western Europe.
The investigation, which started when a container with 2.8 tonnes of cocaine was found in Antwerp, uncovered an international network with connections in at least four European countries and South America.
In 2020 Belgian authorities seized over 65 tonnes of cocaine in the port city, a new record. The amount of the drug intercepted has risen to 14 times the size it was in 2013.
Dutch operation 'prevented dozens of crimes'
Meanwhile Dutch police and prosecutors say they detained 30 suspects across the country, searching 75 homes and offices during the operation.
They seized 28 firearms in the port city of Rotterdam, the authorities said, while earlier in the investigation they intercepted thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin and hashish.
Law enforcement officials “succeeded in gaining access to hundreds of millions of messages” from users of encrypted messaging service Sky ECC, the statement by Dutch prosecutors said.
The Sky ECC server was taken offline Tuesday and seized by Dutch authorities, according to the prosecution statement.
Prosecutors said while monitoring the encrypted messages they were able to prevent dozens of planned crimes, including kidnappings and murders.
The operation followed a similar crackdown in July last year when a joint Dutch-French police operation cracked another encrypted communications network called EncroChat, allowing them to monitor criminals in real time as they planned drug shipments, arms deals and assassinations. More than 800 people were arrested.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that many former EncroChat users migrated last year to Sky ECC.