Togo has arrested eight people after police swooped on a ship smuggling 374 kilos of cocaine, which was on its way across the Atlantic from Venezuela to Spain, the government said on Thursday.
The Togo-registered tugboat was intercepted on the high seas by a French warship and taken into the port of Lome following a tip-off from the Spanish intelligence services.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that French and Togolese law enforcers boarded the tugboat Pitea in the early hours of Monday morning after a tip-off from the Spanish secret services.
On Thursday, journalists were taken aboard the vessel, which is owned by a company based in Uruguay, and were shown 374 one-kilo-packets of cocaine. Officials declined to put a value on the haul.
A Togolese police officer involved in the operation said six Venezuelans, one Ukrainian and the tugboat's Cuban captain had been taken into custody.
Interior Minister Esso Boko told reporters: "The joint operation by agents from Spain, France and Togo has allowed us to make this catch, which is a turning point in the Togolese government's fight against drugs."
He said the government's Office to Combat Illegal Drug Trafficking and Money Laundering had opened an enquiry into the incident to "dismantle the vast network of drug traffickers and identify those in charge... and consider the regional implications".
In January five foreigners were arrested in Ghana, which borders Togo to the west, after police seized almost 600 kilos of cocaine worth an estimated US$ 145 million at street prices.
Officials in Accra believe the cocaine was flown across the Atlantic by plane from South America and dropped into Ghanaian offshore waters, where it was picked up by fishing boats and brought ashore.
As Western countries tighten their surveillance at ports and airports, South American drug traffickers are turning to West Africa as a halfway house before moving their wares on to the United States and Europe, narcotics officials say.
A French police officer told IRIN that several months ago the French police service and others including Interpol had alerted their Togolese counterparts to the existence of a network of drug mules based in the West African country, who were working for Colombian heroine and cocaine cartels.
Togolese police officers say Nigerians are often hired and paid one million CFA (US$4,000) to take a plane from Lome to Europe or the United States, carrying drugs. Several suspected mules have been arrested at Lome airport in recent months.
Last week a Togolese drug baron, Sieur Taffa Mourane, was extradited from Cotonou, the capital of Benin which borders Togo to the east. He had been arrested in April on suspicion of recruiting mules and drug-trafficking.