An Eritrean man accused of operating a vast human trafficking network funneling people from Africa to Europe has been extradited to Italy from Sudan. It is the first time Italy has captured a top trafficking boss.
Medhanie Yehdego Mered, 35, was flown to Italy on Monday night after being arrested in May by Sudanese intelligence services in Khartoum, Italian police said in a statement released on Wednesday.
"Mered is accused of being the advocate and boss of one of the most important criminal groups operating in central Africa and Libya that smuggles people first across the Sahara Desert and then the Mediterranean Sea," prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi said.
Known as "The General," Mered has been on Europe's most wanted list since 2015. His capture, which involved the support of Italian and British law enforcement, is the first time Italy has been able to nab a top human trafficker in Africa.
Italian police said Mered was in a "senior position in a criminal network operating in several continents," but particularly in northern Europe.
"He directed operations not only in Africa, but also kept fellow operators in Italy up to date on the arrival of boats, to enable the migrants to continue to their final destinations [in Europe]," police said.
Mered is alleged to have worked with Ghermay Ermias, an Ethiopian who is still at large. Together they are suspected of having raked in millions of euros sending migrants across the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats, often with deadly consequences.
Britain's National Crime Agency said it holds Mered responsible for the drowning of 359 migrants when a boat sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013.
Tens of thousands of Africans have paid traffickers to cross the Sahara before making the boat trip to Europe
Italy has been at the forefront of the migrant crisis hitting Europe. Since the beginning of 2014 nearly 350,000 migrants have embarked on rickety boats across the Mediterranean from Libya, trying to reach Europe.
Most migrants using Libya as a springboard to reach Europe come from sub-Saharan Africa.
Tracking down human smugglers in Africa is made more difficult by anonymous trafficking cells, instability, corruption and the difficulty of finding reliable partners on the ground.
cw/sms (AP, AFP, Reuters)