By Alex Eliseev

Alleged criminal kingpin Hendrik Delport remained cool as the National Prosecuting Authority seized his private helicopter, three Land Rovers, a Jeep, a boat, a quadbike and a pair of jet-skis.

Wednesday saw the start of one of the Asset Forfeiture Unit's biggest-ever asset seizures in the country, worth about R370-million and spanning 13 accused and 36 companies.

Delport, accused of running an international cigarette smuggling syndicate, and his Rand Airport-based business, Phoebus Apollo Aviation (self-proclaimed "lord of all things that fly"), were the AFU's first targets.

The seizure is running parallel to a criminal trial, now in its second year, where Delport and his co-accused face more than 7 000 charges relating to smuggling and fraud.

So complicated is the trial that one of the witnesses, from the South African Revenue Service (Sars), spent 24 days in the dock giving evidence. So far, 26 witnesses have testified.

Delport is out on R500 000 bail in the criminal trial and is due back in court on April 4.

Should he and his co-accused be found guilty, all assets seized would be forfeited to the state.

Meanwhile Delport and 12 relatives and associates will have their private homes, companies, luxury cars and aircraft either seized or taken over by a curator.

Among the accused is Delport's brother Andre and his alleged right-hand man, Christopher Pickard.

One of the 36 companies seized owns 14 aircraft, nine cars and two tractors. Another, the management company of Rand Airport, owns its own fire truck and emergency vehicle.

On Wednesday, KPMG curator bonis Allen Few estimated that items valued at R70-million had been seized so far. The seizures, granted by a High Court judge, would continue for several days.

"This is an uncapped order, which means we can take anything we find," Few said, adding that the R370-million was the AFU's final target.

"We have taken control," Few said.

He said some assets, such as cars, would be left so that the accused would be able to travel.

"If there are three cars, for example, we will leave one."

Few said Delport remained cool on Wednesday when the seizure notice was served on him.

"He was very nice and courteous, but it was a shock to his system."

Delport was not willing to comment on the seizures and claimed he did not want to jeopardise the trial.

His business, Phoebus Apollo Aviation, will continue to operate but will be permanently monitored. Delport is allowed to continue running the business.

On his website, Delport calls his business "the lord of all things that fly" from the "prehistoric pterodactyl" to the "dive-bombing seagull".

The syndicate is accused of claiming false VAT and excise duties from Sars to the tune of R264-million. They allegedly manufactured cigarettes locally and provided bogus paperwork to say the goods had been exported.

The cigarettes, however, never left the country. The scheme is known by Sars as "round-tripping" or "ghost exports".

Sars spent more than three years investigating the syndicate and at least 36 companies connected to it. The investigation spanned South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Angola.

A woman working at Nedbank and a Malawian customs official have already been convicted for assisting Delport and his alleged syndicate.

The seizure order was granted in terms of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act to prevent a suspect from selling off assets as his or her trial nears conclusion. The National Prosecuting Authority alleges that Delport has benefited from the crime.

Six months ago, Sars smashed another cigarette smuggling syndicate, arresting 10 members, and confiscating 15-million cigarettes.

At the time, Sars spokesperson Adrian Lackay said South Africa, Malawi and Botswana were the biggest cigarette manufacturers in Africa. The three countries were also the chief targets of smuggling syndicates.

According to Sars, cigarette smuggling is increasing at a rate of two percent a year. This means a loss of about R2-billion in revenue every year.

In South Africa, the legitimate cigarette market was worth R11-billion in 2005, catering to some five million adult smokers. About 35 billion cigarettes were produced, 25 billion of which were destined for local consumption.

The 10-billion cigarettes for export constituted the "high-risk area", Lackay said.

Because no duties and taxes were charged on exports, syndicates pretended to export large shipments (with bogus paperwork), but in fact kept the cigarettes for the local market.