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Italy looks into reports it got wrong man in refugee smuggling swoop

Italian prosecutors are looking into media reports that they have apprehended the wrong man in an operation that apparently led to the arrest and extradition of a kingpin in the refugee trafficking business.

Italian and British anti-crime agencies on Wednesday announced the arrest of

Mered Yehdego Medhane

, a 35-year-old from Eritrea - who was apprehended in Sudan and flown to Italy to face trial.

Italian and British authorities described him as a ruthless criminal known as the "General," thought to be at the heart of a ring trafficking migrants from Africa to Europe and reportedly responsible for the death of at least 359 migrants who drowned when their boat sank off the Italian coast in October 2013.

Probing possible mistaken identity

Both the BBC and the "Guardian" newspaper reported on Thursday this may have been a case of mistaken identity. Friends of the detainee have reportedly identified the man taken into custody as Mered Tesfamariam, a 27-year-old migrant.

A woman in Norway said she was his sister and that he was "completely innocent."

Passing the buck

"We are carrying out the appropriate checks," Palermo Chief Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi said, according to the ANSA news agency.

"At the moment all we can say is that the identification, arrest, handover and extradition to Italy of the fugitive were communicated to us in an official manner by Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) and by Sudanese authorities," he added.

The NCA, meanwhile, said it was "too soon to speculate" about the claims, but added it was "confident in its intelligence-gathering process."

If he is the wrong man, this will come as setback to European investigators, who hoped they had finally arrested one of their most-wanted suspects.

Over 320,000 people reached Italy from Libya in 2014 and 2015, including over 70,000 Eritreans.

Watch video 04:12

Italy: Refugee Ship

jbh/sms (dpa, AFP)

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