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Last Updated: Monday, 12 May, 2003, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
Italian police 'buy' auctioned baby

Italian police have reportedly smashed a ring of Ukrainian human traffickers who were selling an unborn baby to the highest bidder.

Italian media reports say undercover officers stumbled across what they described as "a kind of auction" as they were investigating a massive drug deal.

We are looking at an extremely dangerous form of criminality
Investigating magistrate Gianrico Carofiglio

The police say they then agreed to pay 350,000 euros (251,000) to the organisation as payment for the unborn child.

Four people - three women and a man, all Ukrainians - have been arrested in the southern cities of Naples and Bari, allegedly while trying to finalise the deal.

There are suspicions that the baby was being sold for its organs.

The baby's mother, who is alleged to have agreed to the deal, is among those arrested.

The four have been charged with attempted enslavement as well as other crimes.

'Extremely dangerous'

The ring, described by Italian radio as "very dangerous", is said to have specialised in smuggling girls from Eastern Europe who were then forced into prostitution.

Investigators believe that the traffickers might have sold other children for illegal adoption in the past whenever one of the prostitutes they controlled happened to get pregnant.

Police also said they were investigating several Italians who had expressed interest in buying the child for its organs.

They said they believed other children may already have been sold by the gang, pointing to the fact that the baby's umbilical cord was perfectly cut, even though the operation was carried out with an ordinary kitchen knife.

"We are looking at an extremely dangerous form of criminality," investigating magistrate Gianrico Carofiglio told a news conference in the southern city of Bari on Monday.

The head of Italy's District Anti-Mafia Directorate, Pier Luigi Vigna, confirmed to Italian radio that there was "more than just a suspicion" that the group was involved in the trafficking of human organs.

He added that police in other unspecified countries in eastern Europe were collaborating to fight the plague of organ trafficking.

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