An Eritrean man, allegedly pivotal in the operation to smuggle migrants from Africa to Europe, has landed in Rome after being extradited to Italy from Sudan.
Mered Medhanie, known as ‘The General’, was held in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in May. He was flown to Rome on Tuesday, reports the BBC.
Italian news agency Ansa said Medhanie is accused of being “the leader and organiser of one of the largest criminal groups operating between central Africa and Libya”.
Britain’s National Crime Agency says he is thought to have arranged the transit of a boat that sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013. At least 359 migrants – most from Eritrea and Somalia – died when the boat, travelling from Libya, capsized.
Prosecutors accuse Medhanie of running the network alongside an Ethiopian accomplice, who is still at large. The two men are accused of buying-up kidnapped migrants from other gangs and sending those migrants on barely seaworthy ships across the Mediterranean towards Europe.
The UK’s National Crime Agency said it had tracked him down to an address in Khartoum, where he was then arrested. The rare extradition from Sudan to Italy was completed in record time, reported Italy’s La Repubblica.
Medhanie styled himself on the late Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi and is said to have driven around in a tank…
British investigators had been supporting the Italian inquiry into the Lampedusa tragedy. Palermo prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi pointed out that the arrest “materialised thanks to international judicial and police cooperation”.
The NCA said Medhanie, 35, was known as The General, as he styled himself on the late Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi and is said to have driven around in a tank.
La Repubblica says telephone intercepts acquired by Italian investigators depict a man who, while kind and considerate when dealing with matters relating to his wife and children in Sweden, was cynical and ruthless in his work.
In the recordings, he estimates he has smuggled 7,000 or 8,000 people. In one, he is reportedly heard laughing at the overloading of migrant boats.
Italy’s Corriere Della Serra newspaper reports that Medhanie boasted of being in league with local officials in Tripoli, Libya, while also having a network of workers in Italy. He charged migrants up to €5,000 to travel from African countries to northern Europe, the newspaper said.
Investigators are hopeful that he will co-operate with the investigation, helping to identify other smugglers carrying people on the Libya-Italy route.
Up to 500 people were on the boat which broke down and then sank in early October 2013.
Those who survived said that some of those on board set fire to a piece of material to try to attract the attention of passing ships, only to have the fire spread to the rest of the boat.
According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2014, the year after the Lampedusa tragedy, around 170,000 migrants reached Italy by sea. In 2015, the number dropped to 153,800 and this year up to 40,000 migrants have arrived so far.