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TIMOTHY APPLEBY in Toronto MIRO CERNETIG in Beijing ROD MICKLEBURGH in Vancouver

In one of the oddest show-and-tell presentations ever seen at the federal building in midtown Toronto, hundreds of fake duck eggs -- brown, hairy, looking thoroughly genuine -- were triumphantly displayed yesterday, together with suitcases overflowing with cash.

The hollowed-out eggs were part of a giant, two-phase heroin haul in Toronto and Vancouver, jointly comprising the biggest such interception in Canadian history. In all, more than 150 kilograms of the fiercely addictive drug were seized, all of it shipped by container from Guangdong province in mainland China. The combined value of the seizure is estimated to be at least a quarter of a billion dollars.

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In Vancouver, the Asian Organized Crime Unit of the RCMP arrested seven men of Asian descent on Saturday and charged them with smuggling more than 99 kilograms of near-pure heroin.

In Toronto, the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit and Canada Customs and Revenue Agency intercepted about 57 kilograms of heroin on Aug. 31, together with 17 kilograms of ecstasy pills and $1.2-million in Canadian and U.S. cash.

The Toronto drugs, shipped by rail after arriving in Vancouver from China, were disguised as duck eggs, a popular delicacy as the city's Chinese community prepares for the annual Autumn Moon Festival.

Although the two consignments arrived separately, on different dates and by different means, RCMP in the two cities worked closely and the two massive batches are thought to be linked.

"Shipments of this nature in all likelihood originate from the same organization in China," said RCMP Superintendent Ben Soave, who heads the CFSEU, which targets organized crime.

The two shipments of heroin, which originated in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region, probably Myanmar (formerly Burma) or Laos, had only partly been tested for purity yesterday. But in all, the load was thought to be worth at least a quarter of a billion dollars.

China's government had no comment yesterday on the twin busts and Canadian diplomats said they had no details on the investigation.

But Beijing has acknowledged publicly that China is facing a flood of drugs from the Golden Triangle.

Even by itself, the Vancouver seizure, which followed a 20-month investigation, is thought to be a record.

"It's definitely the largest in Vancouver, and nobody can remember anything larger in Toronto or Montreal," said RCMP Corporal Grant Learned. "The previous biggest here was a seized shipment of 152 pounds [69 kilograms]of heroin in 1993."

In both Toronto and Vancouver, home to an estimated 10,000 heroin addicts, about 400 of whom died of overdoses last year, police were exultant.

"We feel we have dealt a major blow to Asian organized crime today," said Inspector Terry Towns, who heads the Greater Vancouver RCMP Drug Section.

The seven Vancouver suspects, whose names were not immediately released, face numerous drug charges. Four are Canadian citizens and three are permanent residents of Hong Kong.

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The heroin seized in Vancouver was found compressed into 55 airtight plastic bricks, secretly hidden in a beam-like compartment beneath the hard wooden floor of the privately owned container on which it arrived. An elaborate system of nylon straps wrapped around the bricks was used to recover the drug stash.

The privately owned container had been shipped from Guangdong, arrived in Vancouver on Aug. 18, and had since then been under surveillance.

In Toronto, where the seizure followed a yearlong investigation, three Scarborough residents, who have for several years operated a food-importing business, face heroin-smuggling charges. Arrested were Wei Hong Sun, 49, her 21-year-old son Zhi Yong Huang, and business associate Sui Ping Lee, 46.

Ms. Sun's husband and business partner, also named Zhi Yong Huang, who is a Guangdong resident, is among those Canadian police are anxious to interview as the investigation continues.

The 1,700 plastic, drug-filled eggs, containing both the heroin and the ecstasy pills, were hidden among a much larger consignment of 174,000 real duck eggs.

Mark Butler of Canada Customs said that up to now, coast to coast, his agency had only seized 11 kilograms of heroin so far this year.

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The Toronto shipment was discovered in an east-end warehouse using a detector dog -- a golden Labrador -- he said. Three other, similar containers had previously been searched without result.

"This shows you how [smugglers]will exploit every legitimate avenue to get drugs into Canada," said Supt. Soave, who believes drugs have been shipped to Canada in replica eggs before.

While Vancouver has long been Canada's heroin capital, the drug is increasingly showing up in other cities, notably Toronto, where, in 1999, almost 2 per cent of students surveyed said they had used it in the past year.

"Heroin's growing popularity among youth is a frightening reality," said Dr. Joyce Bernstein of Toronto's Public Health Office.

In Vancouver, police estimated the heroin would have been enough for three million single doses on the street. At current local rates of $35 a hit, that puts the value of the shipment at about $105-million.

Toronto prices are higher. Police estimated the 57 kilograms seized there would have been worth about $142-million.

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In both cases, the heroin is thought to have been moved overland from the Golden Triangle and then shipped from China with an in-transit stop in Hong Kong.

China's leadership has recently announced an attempt to crack down on the heroin trade, which has given the Middle Kingdom its own problems -- an alarming increase in numbers of drug addicts, an increased number of AIDS victims and violence by smugglers.

Last year, China investigated 65,000 drug cases, involving more than five tonnes of heroin and more than a tonne of raw opium, from which heroin is made.

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