Italian and German police have busted a six-member ring that smuggled asylum seekers into the European Union via the Balkans, state police in the Italian city of Ancona said Wednesday.
The transnational ring consisted of six Pakistani nationals, three operating in Germany and three in Italy.
The chiefs of each "cell" were arrested at dawn in each country and their accomplices' homes were searched, Italian police said in a statement.
Investigators described the leader of the Italian cell as a 30-year-old "sporadically employed" labourer who lives in the city of Macerata.
He had two accomplices aged 57 and 42, who live in the seaside resort of Senigallia. The two arrested suspects are accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration and kidnapping for purposes of extortion.
They were reported by a fellow Pakistani in April 2016, who told police he was held against his will in a basement apartment in the Serbian capital of Belgrade after paying them 2,000 euros (just over 2,100 dollars) for transport to Germany.
He was freed after his brother paid a further 6,000 euros.
Part of the ransom was paid in a German restaurant, and other tranches were paid into bank and post office accounts in the Italian cities of Ancona, Macerata, and Senigallia, police said.
The gang smuggled several dozen fellow Pakistanis into Germany and France from Greece, Macedonia and Turkey into Austria, Hungary and Serbia, as well as from Italy into France, according to police.
The migrants paid 3,000-8,500 euros each to travel by car and train, sometimes being forced to cover several kilometres on foot. The also smugglers bribed border guards in some cases, police said.
The migrants requested political asylum upon reaching their destinations. Investigators say no suspected terrorists have been identified among them so far.
Wednesday's joint operation was coordinated by Italian anti-Mafia prosecutors and the state prosecutor's office in the Bavarian city of Hof, and was conducted by Ancona state and German federal police.