By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome
A Europe-wide child trafficking gang has been broken up following an investigation led by Italian police.
Trafficked girls and women are often forced into sex slavery
Forty one people have been arrested in Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and Austria. The victims had been sexually exploited and forced into a life of crime.
Most of the children moved by this gang were from Bulgaria and were between the ages of eight and 13.
Police said it appears that they had been sold to the gang by their poverty-stricken parents.
Police are not sure how many children were smuggled into Europe, but they suspect well over 100.
They were trafficked into several western European countries, including the UK, but a large number of them ended up in Germany.
Bulgarian prosecutors say the children had been rented to the gang by their parents on a contract basis. There were forged documents for each child.
Some money was paid upfront, but it seems the parents profited from a share of the child's crimes. The gang guaranteed that the child would steal a minimum of 1,000 euros (£685) a day.
Younger children were more suitable, because they would not be prosecuted if they were caught. They were trained for petty crime and had become skilful pickpockets.
The money they took from handbags and coats was handed over to the gang and reinvested in the drug trade. They had been moved around and kept in slave-like conditions, said police.
Prosecutors have so far identified 100 children, but there could be more. Those they have found will now be returned to Bulgaria.
All 41 people arrested are Bulgarian nationals and are known to be the leaders of the gang. Aside from slavery, they face charges of illegal immigration, international drug trafficking and money-laundering.
Operation Elvis Bulgaria, co-ordinated by the Italian carabinieri, involved police forces in Austria, Germany and Bulgaria.
They were working closely with anti-Mafia prosecutors in the town of Trieste on the Italian-Slovenian border.
Bulgaria, which hopes to join the European Union in 2007, has a growing problem with this kind of Mafia-related crime. This year the European Commission criticised the Bulgarian government for a failure to crack down on corruption and for limited progress in the fight against trafficking and drugs.