Italy arrests 16 suspected of trafficking migrants, as Greece nabs group trying to smuggle migrants

Migrants being rescued at sea in an undated handout released by the Italian Navy Marina Militare. PHOTO: EPA

ROME (Reuters) - Italian police have arrested 16 people suspected of trafficking migrants across the Mediterranean from Libya after a week in which thousands were rescued and hundreds drowned trying to make the journey.

Meanwhile, Greece has arrested a group of men who tried to smuggle a dozen migrants abroad in a truck from a port city connecting Greece to Italy, the coast guard said on Tuesday.

Police in Catania, Sicily, said in a statement on Tuesday (May 31) that they had detained 16 men who were rescued in international waters along with hundreds of migrants and brought to the port city on May 28.

On arrival, testimony from the migrants helped police to identify a Gambian man believed to have captained one of the boats from Libya and 15 others who had brought fuel, looked after the engine and supervised the migrants during the journey.

The suspects arrived in Catania with more than 860 others who had been rescued in five different operations, police told a news conference.

Most of the migrants who arrive in Italy looking for a better life in Europe come from sub-Saharan Africa via Libya, where criminal gangs have taken advantage of the breakdown of order to set up a lucrative trafficking business.

The migrants arriving in Catania said they had been taken to a site near the western Libyan cities of Sabratha and Zuwarah, where they stayed for up to 45 days while the traffickers kept watch over them and fed them once a day.

They were then charged the equivalent of 500 euros to 1,000 euros for the journey. None of the migrants were given life jackets, but all the suspected traffickers wore them.

Police suspect the group had contacts in Sicily to help organise the next phase of the migrants' journey. Most people who come to southern Italy want to head to stronger economies in northern Europe where they expect more opportunities.

The four Greek nationals arrested in Greece, including the driver, were held early on Monday "for forming a criminal group, for facilitating the transfer of undocumented foreigners abroad and for exposing them to danger", the coast guard said.

The 12 migrants, who Greek media said were Somali and Iraqi, were also arrested. The Athens News Agency said the truck had set off from the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece's second-biggest, and was discovered in the western port city of Igoumenitsa.

As Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II continues, more than 2,500 people are thought to have died this year after being packed into rickety boats by traffickers.

In previous years, hundreds of migrants made desperate - and often unsuccessful - attempts to board ferries to Italy from Igoumenitsa as well as from the port of Patras further south by hanging on to the underside of cargo trucks.

That changed in 2015 when about a million migrants and refugees, mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who arrived in Greece from Turkey, took the easier overland route to western and northern Europe through Greece's border with Macedonia.

That route has been closed off since February following border shutdowns across the Balkans, stranding about 54,000 migrants and refugees in various makeshift or state-run camps across Greece.

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