MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian and U.S. agents destroyed four drug labs and nearly one tonne of heroin in a joint raid in Afghanistan this week, anti-narcotics officials said on Friday.
The Russian and U.S. officials hailed the unprecedented operation as a powerful result of efforts to improve strained relations between Washington and Moscow.
Russian anti-drugs tsar Viktor Ivanov said Russian and U.S. agents, supported by helicopters and Afghan police, raided a network of heroin and morphine production labs in mountains near the Pakistani border early on Thursday.
“Four laboratories were found and destroyed — three for heroin and one for morphine,” Ivanov said. “As a result, 932 kg (2,055 lb) of very highly concentrated heroin and 156 kg of opium was destroyed.”
He added that the drugs could have a street value of about $250 million.
Eric Rubin, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, said it was a “very big” seizure.
“We are talking about almost one metric tonne of heroin, which is a lot of heroin,” Rubin told a joint news conference with Ivanov.
“Just in terms of disruption, this was a very important operation, but it was also part of a larger strategy to attack the drug flows.”
Russia’s role suggested the Kremlin wanted to respond to U.S. and NATO calls for more support against the Taliban, and to increase its own influence in Afghanistan, without sending troops to the site of a Soviet-era war that still haunts Moscow.
Ivanov said the raid followed three months of preparation based on Russian intelligence about the location of the labs near the Pakistani border in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
He said four Russian agents were directly involved, two in the field and two helping coordinate.
Afghanistan has produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, which is processed to make heroin.
Trafficking from the war-scarred country stokes a major drug problem in Russia, and Ivanov said it also threatened Russia by fomenting instability in former Soviet states in Central Asia, where Moscow fears a rise of militant Islam.
Ivanov is the Russian head of a joint working group set up by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last year to promote cooperation against drug trafficking.
He has criticised the U.S. strategy for fighting Afghan drugs, urging more aggressive efforts to eradicate poppy crops and he said on Friday that should be the main priority.
Central Asia expert Alexei Malashenko said Russia’s leadership increasingly sees a successful campaign to bring security to Afghanistan as being in Russia’s interests, and not as a Kremlin loss in a post-Cold War struggle for influence.
“It’s a sign that Russia is ready to cooperate and not just be a bridge,” said Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, referring to Russia’s hands-off role as a transit route for supplies aiding the U.S. and NATO campaign.
The officials did not discuss details of Thursday’s operation and it was unclear whether there were any casualties or arrests. Ivanov said nobody on the law enforcement side was killed, but gave no other details.
Editing by Andrew Dobbie