By Aaron Ross
DAKAR (Reuters) - Drugs with a street value of nearly 100 million euros have been seized in operations in Africa and the Middle East, including two major busts that show how traffickers are packing larger loads into their shipments, Interpol said on Monday.
Interpol worked with customs and police officials from 41 countries for two operations in March and April that coordinated enforcement action at borders and other hotspots.
In Niger, authorities seized 17 tonnes of cannabis resin, worth around 31 million euros ($37 million), from warehouses in the capital Niamey. The drugs, destined for Libya, represent the largest bust in the West African country's history, Interpol said in a statement.
In South Africa, the police seized 973 cocaine bricks worth around 32 million euros from a fishing vessel and arrested 10 people, Interpol said. The police said the haul was one of South Africa's largest.
Some 287 people were arrested in those operations and other ones with smaller hauls over the two months, Interpol said.
Jan Drapal, the coordinator of Interpol's drugs unit, said the seizures underscored how drug kingpins were sending larger shipments in response to COVID-19 travel restrictions and border closures, which have restricted their ability to more frequently move smaller quantities of drugs via individual couriers.
Increasing consumption in places such as Central and Eastern Europe and rising cocaine production in South America - both of which predate the pandemic - have also driven the move toward larger shipments, he told Reuters.
"They decided to bring as many drugs as possible at once," Drapal said. "Recently we saw not only in Africa but also in other countries many record-breaking seizures."
"What was confirmed by this operation is that COVID-19 did not stop anything," he said.
Africa, which is considered to be mostly a transit route for illegal drugs such as cocaine on the way from South America to Europe, has registered a series of record busts in recent years.
Police in Cape Verde seized a record 9.5 tonnes of cocaine from a ship in 2019. Gambian authorities seized nearly 3 tonnes in January from a shipment originating in Ecuador.
($1 = 0.8222 euros)
(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alison Williams)