BRUSSELS (Reuters) – EU customs officers have seized 135 million counterfeit cigarettes in a joint operation that has prevented a loss of over -220 million ($298.5 million) in duties, officials said yesterday. Customs authorities, aided by Interpol, detected 67 containers with illegal consignments under a crackdown on import fraud, code-named «Operation Diabolo,» which was carried out in February across the 27-nation European Union. «Operation Diabolo marks a new milestone in cooperation among EU members in combating customs fraud. With world trade developing fast, we must ensure that rules are obeyed,» EU Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas told a news conference. Apart from cigarettes, half a million other articles were seized, including textiles, footwear, toys, furniture, suitcases and watches, many of them from China. «The operation forestalled a potential loss of approximately 220 million euros to the budgets of the European community and its member states in seizures of cigarettes alone,» the executive European Commission said in a statement. The EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, said branded tobacco products are increasingly counterfeited in China, Russia and elsewhere. «Illegal cigarette factories are sprouting up all over the place,» said Ian Walton, an OLAF director, citing an example of a factory recently discovered in a decommissioned Russian mine. Walton repeated calls on cigarette makers Japan Tobacco and Reynolds American to sign agreements with the EU on helping it to fight contraband in exchange for the bloc dropping legal cases against them. The Commission has accused the firms of colluding in smuggling cigarettes to avoid EU taxes, charges they deny.