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This image provided by the Italian State Police on  Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022,  shows searches as part of an investigation that led to the issue of 18 arrest warrants for Italians and Tunisians, in Sicily on Thursday, accused of operating a migrant trafficking route on high-speed boats from Sicilian ports to the Tunisians coast.

This image provided by the Italian State Police on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, shows searches as part of an investigation that led to the issue of 18 arrest warrants for Italians and Tunisians, in Sicily on Thursday, accused of operating a migrant trafficking route on high-speed boats from Sicilian ports to the Tunisians coast. (Polizia di Stato/AP)

MILAN — Italian police arrested 12 people Thursday and have issued warrants for another six over their alleged roles in a high-speed migrant-smuggling ring that operated between Tunisia and Sicily.

The suspects are alleged to have demanded payment of 3,000-5,000 euros in cash per person, packed the boats with 10 to 30 passengers at a time, and pocketed 30,000-70,000 euros for each four-hour journey, police said in a statement.

Phone intercepts revealed that the smugglers discussed dumping migrants overboard in the case of problems such as failed motors, police said.

The investigation was launched in February 2019 after a fisherman in Sicily's port of Gela noticed a 10-meter glass fiber boat with two 200-horsepower motors. Investigators discovered the boat had been stolen 10 days previously in Catania, Sicily.

Arrest warrants were issued for 11 Tunisians and seven Italians. They face charges of illegal cross-border smuggling of more than five people, with the aggravating circumstance of inhuman treatment and endangering the lives of migrants and committing crimes for profit.

A Tunisian couple already jailed on a people-trafficking conviction were identified as the presumed masterminds of the scheme.

Two Tunisians based in Sicily were accused of having managed the money, while five Italians allegedly organized housing and transfer of the smugglers to and from ports. Profits were reinvested into the operation, including the purchase of new boats, to increase earnings.

The warrants also target four other alleged speed-boat drivers, one Italian and three Tunisians, and four Tunisians who made connections with the migrants in northern Africa.

Also suspected in the ring is owner of a small farm with a private airfield that allegedly functioned as a base for the operation. The farmer was accused of providing employment documents for some of the Tunisian operatives to legitimize their presence in Italy.

While the new Italian government has cracked down on humanitarian rescue ships that pick up migrants departing Libya in the central Mediterranean Sea, the majority of migrants arriving in Italy travel along routes from Tunisia.

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