Human trafficking ring busted

2009-06-09 17:47

Rome - Police cracked down on a human trafficking organisation on Tuesday that smuggled thousands of Iraqi Kurds into Europe aboard trucks, sometimes stuffing them into cages or hiding them in empty vending machines, authorities said.

In the coordinated police operation, authorities issued 46 arrest warrants. Most of the suspects were picked up in 16 Italian cities, but 14 were detained abroad, mainly in Germany, but also in France, England, Belgium, Switzerland, Greece and Sweden, police said.

"They treated these people like merchandise. They pushed them into every sort of container, among the watermelons, among pieces of steel," said Venice police official Alessandro Giuliano, who coordinated the operation, which was dubbed Ticket to ride.

Police in Rome said the secret organisation had smuggled thousands of Iraqi Kurds into Europe beginning in 2006, with at least three dying while in transit.

The Kurds travelled from war-torn Iraq through Turkey to Greece, where smugglers hid them inside trucks that crossed the Adriatic on ferries and docked in Italy, Giuliano said.

Hidden in machines and cages

Some of the illegal immigrants were hidden inside empty drink vending machines and cages loaded on the trucks, police said.

At least three Iraqi Kurds being smuggled into Europe died of suffocation because of how they were hidden. Their bodies were found in 2007 in a truck loaded with watermelons on its way to Venice from Greece, Giuliano said.

The illegal immigrants allegedly paid from €2 884) to €5 770 each for their journey.

The smugglers had bases in Iraq and Turkey, police said.

Hundreds of Italian police worked on the Ticket to ride investigation, which began when 36 illegal immigrants were found hiding in a truck travelling to Italy from Greece in 2006.

Italy has long been battling waves of illegal immigration, with most of the media attention focusing on the hundreds of people who arrive in overcrowded boats from Africa.

But illegal immigrants also try to slip into Italy at ports in cargo trucks, arriving from Greece and other countries. They either stay in Italy clandestinely or travel elsewhere in Europe to search for jobs or relatives.

In a separate operation, anti-fraud police said Tuesday that 24 Kurds, including five children and two women, were found hiding in a truck headed to Switzerland from northern Italy. Authorities said the truck's driver, a 53-year-old German man, was arrested on charges of aiding illegal immigration.