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'Mistaken identity' claim over people-smuggling probe arrest

Published 09/06/2016

Mered Medhanie has been arrested after an operation involving the NCA and GCHQ (NCA/PA)
Mered Medhanie has been arrested after an operation involving the NCA and GCHQ (NCA/PA)

Police who claim to have seized one of the world's most wanted people-smugglers may have got the wrong man, according to reports.

Mered Medhanie, dubbed The General, is said to be the mastermind of an international smuggling network who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean.

The 35-year-old Eritrean, so-nicknamed because he styled himself on former Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was arrested in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, in May before being extradited to Italy on Tuesday.

But Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) is now working with its partners after friends of the detainee claimed he was a victim of mistaken identity.

Hermon Berhe, who lives in Ethiopia, told the BBC he grew up in Eritrea with the man shown in pictures distributed by Italian police.

He said: "I don't think he has any bone in his body which can involve such kind of things.

"He is a loving, friendly and kind person."

Three close friends of the detainee claim the man sent to Italy was in fact Medhanie Tesfamariam Kidane, a 27-year-old refugee arrested in a street in Khartoum late last month, the Guardian reported.

Footage released by Italian police, said to be of the wanted people-smuggler, showed a man being escorted off a plane in Italy and taken to a police station.

An NCA spokesman said: "We have noted the Guardian's report. This is a complex multi- partner operation and it is too soon to speculate about these claims."

He said the NCA is "liaising with our partners", adding that the organisation is confident in its intelligence-gathering process.

It is thought Medhanie ran an empire smuggling thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East into Europe by regular journeys across the Mediterranean.

NCA deputy director Tom Dowdall said earlier: "Medhanie is a prolific people-smuggler and has absolute disregard for human life.

"Although he was operating thousands of miles away, his criminal activity was impacting the UK. Medhanie no doubt thought he was beyond the reach of European justice but we were able to support the Italians by tracking him down to Sudan."

According to Italian prosecutors, Medhanie was responsible for the death of 359 migrants who drowned when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013.

In one conversation intercepted by Italian authorities he could be heard laughing about the fatal overloading of migrant ships.

In others, he discussed organising journeys across the Mediterranean and co-ordinating smuggling gangs.

Operation Glauco, a probe set up by the Italian authorities in the wake of the Lampedusa tragedy, was assisted by NCA officers from the UK Immigration Crime Taskforce in tracking down the kingpin to an address in the El Diem area of Khartoum.

GCHQ assisted the NCA in trawling through communications data, while the agency used its "international network" to set up a trap with Sudanese authorities, leading to the arrest on May 24.

The man is charged with being the organiser of a transnational criminal conspiracy aimed at smuggling human beings from Africa to Italy, and on to northern Europe and the UK.

Other charges include the smuggling of migrants relating to numerous arrivals of boats in Sicily, with aggravating circumstances of the number of smuggled people, inhuman treatment and risk to the life of migrants.

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