Five charged over cocaine in Australia-bound plane that crashed in Papua New Guinea

SYDNEY (AFP) - Five alleged members of an Australia-based organised crime ring have been charged after hundreds of kilos of cocaine were discovered in a plane that crashed after takeoff in Papua New Guinea, police said on Saturday (Aug 1).

Australian Federal Police allege that "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 five, all described as members of a Melbourne-based criminal syndicate with alleged links to Italian organised crime, were charged with conspiring to import 500kg of cocaine worth some A$80 million (S$78 million) and other related crimes, the police said in a statement.

The crash occurred on July 26 as the drug-laden plane attempted to take off from a remote airstrip in Papa Lea Lea, about 30km north of Papua New Guinea's capital of Port Moresby, en route to Australia.

The cocaine stash, which police said was "the equivalent of about 500,000 street deals", was discovered late on Friday, Australian Federal Police said.

The five, who were not on the flight but were implicated in the smuggling operation, were arrested in Queensland and Victoria after the Cessna model light aircraft departed Mareeba Airport in Australia on July 26 for its mission to Papua New Guinea.

They face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.