italy migrants.jpg
Photograph: EPA/CESARE ABBATE

Italian prosecutors said Thursday they were verifying British media reports that they got the wrong man in a major operation that led to the arrest and extradition of a person presented as a top migrant smuggler.

On Wednesday, Italian and British anti-crime agencies announced the arrest of Mered Yehdego Medhane, who was caught in Sudan and flown to Italy to face trial. But the BBC and The Guardian reported a day later that there may have been a case of mistaken identity.

"We are carrying out the appropriate checks," Palermo Chief Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi said, according to the ANSA news agency.

"At the moment all we can say is that the identification, arrest, handover and extradition to Italy of the fugitive were communicated to us in an official manner by [Britain's] National Crime Agency and by Sudanese authorities," he added.

The suspect is being held in Rome's Rebibbia jail and is due to face his first interrogation on Friday, ANSA said.

A spokesman for the National Crime Agency (NCA) in London said it was too soon to comment on media reports, and referred further questions to Italian authorities. He added that the NCA contributed to the arrest by "sharing intelligence."

The suspect was believed to be a 35-year-old from Eritrea. Italian and British authorities described him as a ruthless criminal known as the "General," a self-styled name referring to Libyan strongman Moamer Gaddafi.

In a statement, the NCA said he was "one of the world's most-wanted people smugglers," while Italian police executive Renato Cortese said in a Wednesday press conference that he led "a criminal network that turns over millions of euros."

But unnamed friends of the arrested, quoted by the BBC, said his real name was Mered Tesfamariam. A woman in Norway who said she was his sister told the BBC's Newsnight programme that her brother was "completely innocent".

The Guardian, also quoting friends, named the man as Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, and said he was a 27-year-old refugee arrested in a street in Khartoum late last month.

"It's incredible – he's not a human trafficker. He's from my family. He lived in my father's house. He left Eritrea in 2014, and then went to Khartoum about a year ago. He lived with my brothers and sisters in Khartoum," Fshaye Tasfai, an Eritrean refugee in Sicily, told the Guardian.

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