MAINLAND smugglers, frustrated by a Hongkong police crackdown on their operations, are using barges to off-load cars on to tai feis for shipment to China. The acting head of the Anti-Smuggling Task Force (ASTF), Senior Superintendent William Harvey, said the success of Operation Disavow had forced smuggling syndicates to adopt new tactics. In an operation late on Friday night, a tai fei was seized with a Mercedes Benz on board. The car had been loaded from a lighter minutes earlier. The lighter and tai fei pictured were photographed during Operation Disavow. It was the second consecutive day a flotilla of tai feis had entered the territory's waters during daylight to rendezvous with a Hongkong lighter. When flown over by helicopter a lighter the flotilla was meeting had three luxury cars, all second-hand imports from California, in its hold and a fourth had just been loaded into the back of a five-engined tai fei. ''We have put so much pressure on the land side that they are now cross-loading at sea,'' said Superintendent Harvey. Almost all the lighters are equipped with cranes capable of lifting a large car into the narrow hold of a tai fei. ASTF investigations into these floating docks have been hamstrung by a legal loophole which only allows vessels of more than 250 tonnes to be detained for 12 hours without the consent of the Chief Secretary. This makes it impractical to conduct a lengthyinvestigation. Lighter owners and operators are also free to carry whatever cargo they like within Hongkong waters, provided they have the correct documentation. But with hundreds of lighters being used daily in the territory's busy port, it is impossible to check them all. ''As far as the ASTF is concerned, we are doing a study at the moment [of lighters] which we will put forward to the Government for consideration,'' said Superintendent Harvey. ''This is with a view to making recommendations as to whether there is a solution to the problem.'' He said cases against two lighters suspected of transporting cars to open-sea meetings with smugglers had been submitted to Government lawyers for legal advice. In another incident, a lighter seen off-loading cars on to a tai fei in Hongkong waters was later found empty in Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter. Officers believe it is still being used to carry contraband, but unless they catch the smugglers in the act of lowering a car into a tai fei from a barge there is little they can do legally. ASTF officers know of 12 instances in which lighters have been used to smuggle cars, a large number of which have been imported from Japan and the US. In nearly every case, the shippers have had proper documentation, showing the end user as a foreign coastal ship which is moored in Hongkong but due to export the cars. ''They have export papers,'' said Superintendent Harvey, ''which on the face of it are legitimate, but inevitably most cross-transfer on to tai feis in Hongkong waters or on the boundary of Hongkong waters.'' ASTF operations head Superintendent Kevin Laurie said he believed there were two or three gangs operating lighters in the territory and they either hired them for each job or bought them for about $300,000. ''The majority of the ones we have come across claim they are off-loading on to Vietnamese ships,'' said Superintendent Laurie. To date, vessels, cars, and motorcycles worth almost $18 million have been seized. More than 200 people have been arrested in connection with smuggling offences.