ROME, Sept. 22, 2010— -- Italian police have seized seven tons of the powerful RDX explosive which they found in a shipping container they believe were likely destined for a terrorist organization.
While the origin and destination of the contraband is still being investigated, police are convinced the huge amount of explosive was in transit, possibly from Iran to Syria.
"The truly astonishing amount (of explosive) we seized leads us to believe the recipients could be large international criminal organizations, perhaps tied to terrorism," Carmelo Casabona, the chief of police said at a press conference in Reggio Calabria today, according to the ANSA news agency.
Casabona also told reporters that the container arrived at the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro onboard a cargo ship named "Finland" belonging to the Swiss-Italian MSC shipping company. It was sailing under a Liberian flag.
The bricks of military explosive, also known at T4, were found hidden behind sacks of powdered milk, and filled a good portion of the truck-sized container.
The seizure was the final outcome of a complex investigation involving various Italian police forces, including the customs police, and with the assistance of Italian intelligence services, reporters were told at the press conference.
The "Finland" unloaded a group of containers in the port of Gioia Tauro that were to be sorted for other destinations in the Mediterranean, including one container which was supposed to be filled with powerded milk.
"We are investigating the ship's route, looking at its manifest," " a senior police official from Reggio Calabria told ABC News.
The official said that the container was found when following up on an alert notice about trafficking through the Gioia Tauro port.
Police searched through thousands of containers "and finally we came across this one," said the poice official.
The port of Gioia Tauro lies in the heart of the territory controlled by the 'ndrangheta," the very powerful organized crime organization of Italy's Calabria region. Italian authorities were initially concerned that some or all of the explosive might have been meant to stay in Italy. But Casabona told reporters that they were certain the "enormous quantity" of explosive was not intended for the "ndrangheta" mob.
Port of Gioia Tauro Is Crossroads of Illegal Traffic
"The port of Gioia Tauro is always full of surprises," Pietro Grasso, Italy's chief anti-mafia prosecutor who coordinates all anti-mob operations in Italy, told ANSA.
"We must clarify why the explosive…coming from Iran and bound for Syria had a stop-over in the Calabrian port. It was certainly not a direct route," he said.
This is not the first time the huge port of Gioia Tauro has been the object of investigation or seizures, and it appears to have played a role in illegal trafficking of many kinds.
In 2005 it was at the heart of an investigation into illegal recycling of plastic and other garbage via China and Hong-Kong organized by the "ndrangheta," and in October 2001 the port made international headlines when an Egyptian stowaway was found living in a container on a ship bound for Canada. Rizk Amid Farid claimed to be running away from his brother-in-law in Egypt.