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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 January, 2005, 20:04 GMT
Italy arrests 'people smugglers'
Immigrants on Lampedusa
Thousands of illegal immigrants tried to enter Italy last year
Italian police have arrested 14 people suspected of smuggling thousands of illegal immigrants from North Africa.

The group is believed to be part of a trafficking ring operating in Egypt, Libya and the south of Italy.

Police in the southern Italian town of Crotone said 29 warrants had been issued and arrests were continuing.

An official said the men had organised at least 25 boat trips, smuggling around 3,000 people into Italy - many landing at the island of Lampedusa.

"The masterminds of the organisation, in Calabria and in Egypt, managed a steady inflow of migrants," the police said in a statement.

The men arrested were mainly of Egyptian and Sudanese origin.

Libya deal

A police official said they were investigating claims that some of those arrested had links with international terrorism.

The BBC's David Willey in Rome says telephone taps appear to reveal that some of those arrested had spoken with known al-Qaeda operatives.

If the suspicions are confirmed, he says, it would mean that a major source of funding for the organisation has been uncovered.

More than 10,000 illegal immigrants landed on the island of Lampedusa - between Sicily and Libya - last year.

Many of them are believed to pay as much as $1,000 each for the chance to reach Europe.

Eventually, the Italian government took drastic measures and returned the migrants to Libya in handcuffs on military aircraft.

Italy and Libya now have a repatriation and border agreement to try and stop the entry of illegal immigrants.


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