Hong Kong authorities made the year's largest seizure of goods destined to be smuggled into mainland China, in a joint operation on Tuesday that confiscated more than HK$12 million (US$1.5 million) worth of high-value products.
But the gang of seven fled in a speedboat, taking advantage of dense mangroves in waters northwest of Hong Kong to evade capture, a senior customs official said.
After a two-week surveillance operation on a cross-border smuggling syndicate, police and customs officers laid in wait in marshland near Hong Kong Westland Park, off Border Road in Tin Shui Wai, on Monday night.
Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, a five-metre long speedboat was manoeuvred into a tributary and stopped at the location, where men were seen loading boxes onto the boat from a truck.
When officers moved in, the group dumped the goods on the shore and jumped onto the speedboat, which accelerated away with police crafts in pursuit.
"The sea route is circuitous and there are a lot of obstacles such as oyster rafts and there is shallow water, making it difficult for us to give a chase," Superintendent Chow Shun-wai of Marine police said.
The speedboat reached Tsim Bei Tsui in Deep Bay, from where it took two minutes to leave Hong Kong waters in the direction of Shenzhen. No arrests were made.
On shore, officers found 83 boxes of goods that included 11,500 computer components, 9,500 mobile phones, 300 computer tablets, 60 Apple Watches and 50 handbags.
Officers seized HK$150,000 from the truck, along with a small amount of foreign currency.
Jonathan Leung Yiu-man, of Customs' marine enforcement group, said the haul was worth HK$12.2 million and was the biggest seizure of its kind in their 11 joint anti-smuggling operations so far this year.
In the previous 10 operations, goods worth HK$43 million were seized.
He believed they had struck a heavy blow against the cross-border syndicate, which recently started smuggling high-value products by sea into Shenzhen several times a week, to avoid hefty taxes imposed by authorities in mainland China.
According to the Customs and Excise Department, it was the first time they had found smugglers using an inland site as their base, as they had previously chosen coastal areas for the task.
"It is secluded and one to two kilometres away from coastal area," Leung said.
He said the syndicate operated during high tide to avoid their boats running aground, and its speedboat had to manoeuvre around mangroves through the tributary and river, which they had capitalised on to escape, before reaching Deep Bay.
In Hong Kong, importing or exporting unmanifested cargo carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison and a HK$2 million fine.
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