By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A small plane which crashed shortly after takeoff on a flight from a remote airstrip in Papua New Guinea to Australia last week was overloaded with more than 500 kg (1,100 lb) of cocaine, police said on Saturday.
Police from Australia and Papua New Guinea said they had recovered 28 bags of cocaine worth A$80 million ($57 million) and arrested five suspected drug traffickers connected to the Cessna which came down shortly after takeoff from Papa Lea Lea, north of Port Moresby, on July 26.
The five men were members of a Melbourne-based criminal syndicate, with alleged links to Italian organised crime, the police said. If convicted, all five face life imprisonment.
"The AFP (Australian Federal Police) alleges greed played a significant part in the syndicate's activities and cannot rule out that the weight of the cocaine had an impact on the plane's ability to take off," the police said in a statement.
The plane was found abandoned and empty. The drugs were subsequently recovered at a different location in Papua New Guinea.
The Australian pilot presented himself to the Australian Consulate in Papua New Guinea after the crash. He has been arrested and charged with an immigration offence.
The arrests were a result of an almost two-year multi-agency operation.
"With current interstate travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19, the attempt to import illicit drugs into Australia shows how opportunistic and greedy organised crime can be," AFP Deputy Commissioner Investigations Ian McCartney said in the statement.
Media in Papua New Guinea reported, citing the police, that it was largest drugs haul by value in PNG history.
($1 = 1.4002 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Stephen Coates)