Italy dismantles major migrant smuggler network

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Rome (AFP)

Italian police said Monday they had dismantled a major people smuggling network responsible for trafficking hundreds of people across Europe.

"The criminal organisation comprised Egyptians, North Africans, Sudanese, Albanians, many of them with their papers in order, while a few were Romanian and Italian citizens," a police statement said.

The migrants hailed from Syria, Egypt, Eritrea and Sudan. On making it to Italy they headed for Italy's northern business hub of Milan where the network had its main base.

After reaching Milan, the migrants were transferred to Ventimiglia, near the French border. There, "they were regrouped and hidden pending transport" into France, police said.

Police broke up the group after a two-year investigation which pieced together 62 clandestine voyages that allowed "hundreds of people" to enter various European countries.

The Italian authorities have issued 34 arrest warrants following their investigation -- 18 concerning people based in Italy.

Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti lauded an operation against traffickers whom he dubbed "unscrupulous criminals who abuse people in great difficulty."

Police added they had arrested two Italians in another anti-trafficking operation. They said the pair had been working at a clandestine unit churning out false EU identity documents, including driving licences.

Italy, along with neighbouring Greece, has been at the forefront of attempts to stem the flow of migrants fleeing war and poverty in recent years.

More than 180,000 migrants land in Italy last year, compared with a previous annual record of 170,100 in 2014, on a par with Greece.

More than a million people arrived in Europe via Mediterranean routes in 2015, prompting much political soul-searching across the European union amid strong opposition from some member states to a scheme to relocate them.