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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African police arrested a Chinese national and three Mozambicans on Tuesday in a raid on an illegal abalone-drying facility that yielded nearly five tonnes of the gourmet mollusc known as "white gold" in Asia.

Police and fisheries officers discovered more than 50,000 shellfish in the raid in Benoni, a town east of Johannesburg, one of the biggest ever inland confiscations, officials said.

The four suspects would appear in court on Wednesday.

Destined for trendy restaurants in Hong Kong and China, abalone - dubbed "white gold" after its pearly flesh - can fetch up to 4,500 rand ($420) a kilogramme on the South African black market, and nearly three times that in Asia, experts say.

Caught all along South Africa's extensive coastline, "perlemoen" as it is called locally, is sold for cash or exchanged for methamphetamines, helping fuel the already serious drug problem in Africa's most sophisticated economy.

Illegal harvesting is also driving the species to the brink of extinction in the region.

The seized abalone would be impounded by authorities before being processed and auctioned off to raise money for government efforts to combat wildlife poaching and smuggling, officials said.

(Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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