22 AUGUST 2001

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Malta as 'staging post' for booming stolen equipment trade

Malta’s status as the transportation hub of the Mediterranean has always been highly publicised, but the country’s strategic geographical position is not always used for legitimate business practices.

In fact, the past few months have seen the extradition case of Ronnie Agius, who faces charges in Italy for smuggling many thousands of liri worth of contraband cigarettes to Italy, which was followed shortly after the emergence of the role of many Maltese in human trafficking.

However, and most recently, reports have surfaced that Malta is also being used as staging post for transporting stolen heavy equipment from the UK to destinations in Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe and Russia, according to a report in Monday's edition of The Independent (UK).

Concern is being raised in the UK over gangs of criminals stealing heavy equipment such as bulldozers from construction sites and sending them out of the country in illegitimate activities amounting to an estimated GBP150 million per annum.

According the UK's National Plant and Equipment Register, which keeps a database of some 45,000 such items stolen since 1996, highly organised gangs are being supplied with "shopping lists" of equipment, worth up to GBP150,000 per item, by foreign clients willing to turn a blind eye to "hot" heavy equipment available for cheap prices.

Queries directed to the Register by The Malta Financial and Business Times on Monday have not yet been answered.

The smugglers, many times portfolio criminals involved in other markets from contraband to drugs to human trafficking - which also fits the profile of many Maltese criminals of late - break into construction sites after scouting ahead to find the requested goods.

According to The UK's Independent, such criminals find no difficulty in bringing items such as a 45-ton mobile crane through the green channel of a British port, as it is simply placed on a low loader and driven on to a ship with a minimum of checks.

The Register, a resource pooled between insurance companies and the authorities, estimates that nearly one third of vehicle crime in Britain now involves construction equipment. Reportedly, some 83 per cent of what is stolen stays in the UK, with 17 per cent being exported to Ireland and other countries, with the export market making up half the value of the estimated GBP300 million annual trade.

According to the Register, free movement rules in the European Union mean that consignments bound from Britain and nominally heading for another EU country can pass through ports unhindered and that most of the equipment is then sent to destinations in Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe and Russia via staging posts in Malta and Cyprus.

A Registry spokesperson explained this week, "It is very frustrating – we are talking about a largely unseen crime because the ordinary policeman or customs official is not looking out for this sort of stuff.

"If a police officer is given a choice between pulling over a dodgy-looking car and a lorry carrying a couple of JCBs, it will be the car every time. They don't know how to trace a stolen bulldozer. The smugglers then drive the equipment on to a ship or pack it into a container and it is sold on. When you are talking about vehicles costing £80,000 or more each, the profit to risk return is enormous."

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt