LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Police in Portugal searched military installations and homes across the country on Monday following a tip-off that Portuguese troops stationed with a United Nations force in Africa have smuggled diamonds, drugs and gold back into Europe.
Soldiers are suspected of smuggling the items on military cargo planes traveling between Central African Republic and Portugal, the office of the Portuguese Armed Forces Chief of Staff said in a statement.
Hundreds of elite Portuguese troops, including paratroopers and commandos, have been stationed with the U.N. force in Central African Republic in recent years.
The Portuguese force commander on that mission was told in December 2019 about the possible involvement of Portuguese soldiers in diamond trafficking, the statement said, without providing further details of the tip-off.
After Portuguese judicial authorities were informed, an investigation began into whether troops were working as mules to smuggle diamonds, drugs and gold back home, according to the statement.
Police said in a statement that more than 300 officers took part in the operation targeting “a criminal network, with international links.”
Police conducted searches of 100 sites, mostly homes, and acted on 10 arrest warrants, the statement said without elaborating.
Following the tip-off, the military stepped up checks and inspections of military flights from Central African Republic, according to officials.
Portuguese Defense Minister João Gomes Cravinho said he informed U.N. officials about the tip-off when it was received and told them the case was being handled by the Portuguese judiciary.
The tip-off related to two Portuguese soldiers who were no longer in the Central African Republic, Gomes Cravinho told national news agency Lusa, in an interview published by Diario de Noticias.
“Everything suggests that these were activities undertaken on their own initiative by a handful of soldiers and not something systemic,” he said.