A prominent Canberra-region businessman is among three men linked to the ACT who were arrested in Serbia suspected of ties to an international drug ring that tried to smuggle more than a tonne of cocaine into Sydney.
Rohan Arnold, 43, once headed up Goulburn engineering firm Mass Steel and is a director of the new Western Victoria Livestock Exchange. David Campbell, of Murrumbateman, and Tristan Waters, 34, and were also arrested.
Police allege the men were connected to the discovery of 1280 kilograms of cocaine that was seized from a Chinese container boat docked in Sydney in April last year. They said it was the second largest seizure of the drug in Australia.
The drugs were allegedly found in 2576 packages hidden in steel tubes on the ship and were said to be worth up to $500 million.
Police raided Mr Arnold's home and business premises when they searched properties in Murrumbateman, Jeir, Goulburn and Canberra on Wednesday.
Mr Arnold's defence lawyer, Ben Aulich, said: "We're in the process of organising access to see him in Serbia.
"That will be co-ordinated through [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade]."
"If everything is co-ordinated smoothly and he is not facing charges in Serbia, then we expect him back in the country within four-to-six weeks."
Mr Aulich declined to comment further.
Serbian police released dramatic footage of the arrests that took place overnight in a Belgrade hotel. The footage shows police running through the hotel's doors and pointing their guns at several men sitting in the lobby.
Officers pinned the men to the ground before they handcuffed them.
Police said the arrests were made during a "money handover". The footage also showed a bag filled with foreign currency.
Serbian authorities said the arrests had been made in cooperation with Australian police. No-one has been arrested in Australia.
Police identified the men by their initials and year of birth as Australian citizens TV (1983), RA (1974), and DK (1969); along with DG (1977), a citizen of Lebanon.
The Lebanese citizen was detained and charged with having forged identity documents.
B92 reported the men were arrested with a large amounts of various currencies, including euros, Australian, US and Singaporean dollars, Czech korunas, Vietnamese dong, Japanese yen, Chinese yuan, Thai bahts, and Serbian dinars.
They also allegedly had one pistol.
Serbian authorities said they would "continue to cooperate with Australia's authorities in order to implement further action related to this permanent international investigation".
In a statement, the Australian Federal Police said it launched an investigation into an alleged organised crime syndicate after Border Force officials intercepted the shipping container, which had arrived in Sydney via China.
"AFP forensic chemists conducted a deconstruction and analysis of the cocaine and determined a purity of around 78 per cent, meaning the seizure has an estimated street value of up to $500 million," the statement said.
Border Force acting assistant commissioner of strategic border command, Tim Fitzgerald, said intelligence officers targeted the container for a search when it arrived and described the alleged drug stash as a "sophisticated concealment".
The trio is expected to face charges of conspiracy to import commercial quantities of a controlled drug in the NSW Supreme Court. That offence carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Mr Arnold's business website said he was born and educated in Canberra. He graduated with a commerce degree in 1995.
He had a 20-year career in the steel manufacturing industry and acted as director of ArnoldCo, Arnold Trading and Arnold Contracting, the website said.
He also worked on regional projects including the South Eastern Livestock Exchange in Yass and the Mortlake Saleyards.
Directors of SELX Pty Ltd, which owns the livestock selling centres at Yass and Mortlake, held an emergency meeting after they learned of Mr Arnold's arrest through media reports.
"The operation and management of [South Eastern Livestock Exchange] and [Western Victoria Livestock Exchange] are not affected by this development," they said in a statement. "Livestock sales will continue as scheduled."
SELX Pty Ltd director Brendan Abbey, whose wife is Yass Valley mayor Rowena Abbey, said he heard about Mr Arnold's arrest on the 6am news and had been in "total shock and disbelief".
He had last spoken to Mr Arnold in Australia on Sunday, when he told Mr Abbey he would be overseas for a short time.
Mr Abbey said he assumed Mr Arnold had travelled to China, where he often visited a couple of steel factories
He said Mr Arnold was held in "very high esteem" in the community and there had been no signs of any involvement in the alleged drug operation.
"Nothing at all, not a sign of financial stress. Completely out of the blue."
Mrs Abbey said her business dealings with Mr Arnold did not affect her position as mayor of Yass Valley Council.
"There'd be no reason to change [my position], I haven't done anything. The mayor's got nothing to do with the sale yards," she said.
"It's a private business owned by shareholders that I happen to be the director of, but it has no effect on or anything to do with council because council's not involved with the sale yards.
"It's business as usual … it is operating as a company, [Mr Arnold] happens to be a shareholder, there are other shareholders and directors involved and the business will continue."
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