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From The Malta Independent November 10, 2001

Local News

Protected birds shot in Egypt imported to Malta
Bags slip through customs checks at airport

by Steve Chetcuti

An intricate plan was set up at Malta International Airport to import protected birds into the island illegally, The Malta Independent can reveal.

Investigations revealed that a number of people - including personnel at the airport - were involved in the racket.

Thousands of protected birds are being brought into the island and sold to eager buyers for hundreds of liri.

The birds, mainly shot in Egypt, include eagles and pelicans. Sources said the birds were shot "in their hundreds" and an entire pelican colony in Aswan was almost wiped out.

But the authorities are having difficulties tracking down the suspects, as accomplices at the airport warn off the smugglers before any raid is conducted.

Recently, a bag packed with dead birds was left on the carousal (sic) at the airport after police officers arrived to carry out searches.

But the smugglers' tactics have improved and the bags are being brought into the island without passing through the necessary customs checks.

The Malta Independent can reveal that arrangements are made with contacts in Malta for the bags - some containing up to 400 dead birds - to be taken out from a side exit and delivered to the racket leaders.

Sources said a method of identifying baggage containing the dead birds is agreed upon between the contacts in Egypt and other African countries and their Maltese associates.

"Many systems are used. For example, they could put green tape on the handle of the bag in question, and when the contact in Malta sees the bag, it is not placed with the rest but taken out through a back gate, avoiding any checks," a well-informed source said.

The source said that the person who takes the bag out can receive up to Lm450 for his work. And police are finding difficulties in tracing the illegal imports, as they are distributed immediately.

Mario Bugeja, Airport Security manager, was sceptical of the possibility that bags could be removed from the airport without passing through customs.

"Our office has never received any official reports of bird smuggling through the Malta International Airport. It is to be noted that this matter is the onus of the Customs Department, and not entirely a security issue," Mr Bugeja said.

He said an inspector from the Environment Protection Department had also given him similar information as that received by The Malta Independent.

However, Mr Bugeja said there was no intelligence to indicate that bird smuggling was going on. And no evidence was found to implicate two airport employees suspected of involvement in a smuggling racket, the airport security manager continued.

He said a number of operations were coordinated by his office, and planes from the destination indicated by the authorities were targeted over a two-month period, but nothing was found.

"These flights are, however, still being monitored. To date, nothing irregular has been found," Mr Bugeja said.

And Armed Forces of Malta commander Rupert Montanaro said checks were being carried out. He said details of the security operations could not, for obvious reasons, be divulged.

He said the AFM had no indications that any of its personnel could have in any way been involved in the illegal operations.

Despite the difficulties being faced by investigators, there have been successes. Recently, an Mgarr man was found in possession of 120 unregistered birds, which were confiscated. Police sources said evidence was found showing that the suspect worked as a taxidermist on "a large scale". Criminal action is expected to be taken against the man.

Police are also understood to be carrying out investigations with their counterparts in Egypt through Interpol.

Sources told The Malta Independent that since Air Malta opted to stop its service to Cairo, alternative routes would have to be found as the smugglers have lost their main connection to Egypt.

Meanwhile, a large consignment of protected birds was also understood to have been heading for Malta, but could have been delayed due to increased police surveillance.

Police investigations are being carried out by the Administrative Law Enforcement squad headed by inspector Alex Miruzzi.


Eurobirder/Proact-Malta David Conlin 2001