Pakistan offers help to UK in heroin seizure probe

ISLAMABAD / LONDON (Dawn/ ANN) - Pakistan Prime Minister’s Aviation Adviser Sardar Mehtab Abbasi said it would be difficult to launch an investigation or fix responsibility unless Pakistani authorities receive an official communication regarding the drug seizure claim.

Pakistan on Wednes­day offered to the United Kingdom assistance in a probe into the alleged seizure of heroin on an aircraft of the national flag carrier at Heathrow airport two days ago, though British authorities shared no details of the investigation being conducted by the UK’s National Crime Agency.

“Drug smuggling is never one-sided. Somebody there had to receive whatever was concealed in the aircraft. A big chain could be involved, because it can’t be done by an individual. And opening an aircraft’s cavities is a technical job which can’t be done by an ordinary person,” Prime Minister’s Aviation Adviser Sardar Mehtab Abbasi told a press conference.

While the British police said in a statement that a quantity of heroin concealed in packets was found on board the plane, Mr Abbasi said neither the government, nor any department including the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) or the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) had been informed verbally or in writing by any security agency of the UK about narcotics found in the aircraft.

The adviser said it would be difficult to launch an investigation or fix responsibility unless the Pakistani authorities received an official communication regarding the drug seizure claim.

Offering his assistance to the UK’s investigating agencies and to constitute a joint investigation team for the case, he said that the internal profiling of the crew had been started by the PIA vigilance department and a meeting of all stakeholders — the ANF, Airport Security Force, Customs and the airline’s officials — was called on Thursday (today) to review the situation.

“Unlike the past practice, this time the issue of narcotics smuggling through a PIA plane will not be buried and those who use the national flag carrier for such criminal activities will not be spared,” he said.

According to sources, before taking off for the UK PK-785 remained parked at Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad for about two hours and forty-five minutes on May 15 but the aircraft was not searched by sniffer dogs as per the standard operating procedure.

The aircraft, a Boeing 777, arrived at Islamabad airport from Karachi on May 14 and took off for Birmingham at 4pm the same day. It returned to Islamabad at 10.40am the next day and was parked at Bay No 9 for about two hours and forty-five minutes before taking off for Heathrow airport at 13.25pm on May 15.

As per the SOP, every plane before any international flight undergoes security and engineering checks by the ASF, Customs, PIA engineering and security departments. The ANF also checks the plane for narcotics by using their sniffer dogs.

The sources said all agencies concerned followed the SOP except the ANF, which did not search the aircraft by using its sniffer dogs.

However, a spokesman for the ANF, Samiullah Khan, did not confirm or deny that sniffer dogs were not used for searching the aircraft. He told Dawn that he was only authorised to confirm that the ANF was investigating the case.

However, the sources said that a report was also sent to the senior officials in which it was mentioned that the PK-785 was not searched by the ANF with sniffer dogs.

According to sources, since Boeing 777 is a wide-body aircraft, such planes are repaired or maintained only at the wide-body hangars at Karachi and Lahore. So any drug or other contraband cannot be concealed in the aircraft at Islamabad airport in a mere three hours.

Investigators were trying to ascertain how long the plane was parked at the Karachi hangar before it arrived at Islamabad airport on May 14.

Protest over ‘inhuman’ treatment of PIA crew

British officials have refused to comment on claims by a senior PIA officer that staff from the airline were mistreated at Heathrow airport. 

“The treatment of the crew was unfair,” Sajidullah Khan, PIA’s London chief, told the BBC. “They were on the flight for eight hours and then questioned for eight hours.” He said it was “inhuman” to treat the crew in this way and “there was no justification for holding the crew for hours after their luggage had been searched and checked”.

Mr Khan described the way the UK authorities searched the plane as “rough” although, he added, he had no objection to the removal of whatever they had found on board. He did, however, think that the UK authorities should have informed the crew about what they were looking for. 

He said he planned to write a letter to the British home secretary to complain about the matter. United Kingdom Home Office officials said they would not comment about his complaints as there was an ongoing investigation into the incident. 

A spokesman at the Pakistan High Commission in London said contact had been made with the UK’s Foreign Office. “We have been informed that local authorities are investigating the matter and further findings will be shared with us when available,” he said. 

PK-785 was searched after flying from Islamabad to the UK. UK Border Security Force personnel, helped by sniffer dogs, conducted the search for several hours. 

The drugs found were removed and impounded by the UK authorities, after which PIA was able to resume use of the aircraft that has flown back to Pakistan. 

A PIA spokesman told Dawn that the flight’s crew, who were at a London hotel, were scheduled to return to the country on Thursday. The pilot, Captain Hamid Gardezi, had already returned to the country. 

(Owen Bennett-Jones in London and Bhagwandas in Karachi contributed to the report)

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