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Alleged drug ship's Chinese crew arrested

AAP logoAAP 16/12/2016 Andrew Drummond

Ten Chinese nationals have been arrested in Hobart and their boat impounded amid suspicion of large-scale drug smuggling.

The foreign commercial vessel was originally spotted circling in international waters off Australia's west coast and escorted to the southern capital on Friday by the Navy's HMAS Adelaide following a lengthy maritime monitoring mission.

Swarming with uniformed police, accompanied by a water police speed boat and backed by a tug, the 50-metre, low-lying boat - showing no name or flag - travelled up the city's Derwent River.

Australian Border Force confirmed authorities, including specially-assigned naval vessels and RAAF aircraft, had been following it for "some time" and went aboard on Monday.

"The behaviour of the vessel was unusual in that it was circling in an area outside the economic zone, more than 200 nautical miles off the southern coast of Australia," Border Force regional commander James Watson told reporters.

"As a result of that behaviour, a decision was made to board the vessel.

"On Monday ... personnel from HMAS Adelaide intercepted the vessel and boarded it on the basis of that vessel's suspected involvement in illicit drug smuggling."

They allegedly found drugs, believed to be just a sample of a much larger quantity.

Authorities would not confirm the the amount or type of drugs or comment on reports 160kg of cocaine is on board.

"All I can say is that we believe there's a significant quantity of illegal substances on board," Mr Watson said.

The crew will be questioned while the vessel remains in a maritime exclusion zone for examination.

"It's a former research vessel ... it's not an Australian-registered vessel," Mr Watson said.

"The circumstances of what this vessel was doing, its capability and where it was going is going to be the subject of an ongoing inquiry."

The boat was first noticed during routine aerial surveillance off Western Australia and has been tracked as part of a cross-agency operation with top-level clearance to deploy specialised defence force assets.

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