Italy dismantles a network of people smugglers from Tunisia by speedboat


PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) – Italy has busted a criminal network smuggling migrants to Sicily for around 3,000 euros ($3,379) on a speedboat capable of crossing from Tunisia in less than four hours , magistrates said on Tuesday.

Palermo prosecutors have issued an arrest warrant for 15 suspects of smuggling and trafficking contraband cigarettes, according to a copy of the document seen by Reuters. All were Italian residents, but most were born in Tunisia.

Twelve suspects have been arrested so far and a speedboat seized, along with two fishing boats and seven cars which the group also used, police said.

More than half a million migrants have poured into Italy since 2014, but most of them have paid Libya-based smugglers far less (usually between $800 and $1,300) to board overcrowded and unfit boats. sailing on a journey that often ends in tragedy.

Some 12,200 people have died in the past 3½ years attempting the crossing. Those who succeeded then spent several days at sea on board rescue vessels and were routed through the official Italian immigration system.

The smugglers instead offered those wishing to reach Europe a safe journey over some 200 km (124 miles) of sea in less than four hours, with the aim of arriving completely undetected.

“The danger of this organization was the following: it allowed irregular migrants to evade all authorities and therefore could have transported people who should not be allowed in Italy or Europe”, said the Attorney General of Palermo , Francesco Lo Voi.

In an intercepted phone call, police overheard a potential client, who had not been smuggled into Italy, say he was hiding from Tunisian police and feared arrest in Italy for ” terrorism,” the court document reads.

Police said they checked five crossings, and each netted the smugglers about 40,000 euros.

During one trip, police intervened after 14 migrants were dropped off in a cove near Marsala, Sicily. Some 100 kilos (220 lb) of contraband cigarettes were also part of the payload.

Had he not been arrested, the organization was capable of carrying out at least two crossings a week, police said.

($1 = 0.8878 euros)

Written by Steve Scherer; Editing by Tom Heneghan


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