An Eritrean whistleblower has enabled Italian authorities to arrest a slew of people smugglers in a nationwide dragnet, police said Monday.
"A dangerous criminal network dedicated to migrant trafficking has been dismantled, no respite for dealers in death," Interior minister Angelino Alfano tweeted on Sunday in welcoming the arrest of 25 Eritreans, 12 Ethiopians and one Italian on suspicion of smuggling thousands of migrants.
The group were detained in coordinated swoops in Rome, Northern Italy and Sicily after the 32-year-old Eritrean, arrested in Sicily in 2014, agreed to collaborate in return for official protection.
"I decided to cooperate because there have been too many deaths," authorities quoted the man as saying, adding that thousands of refugees who have drowned attempting to make perilous Mediterranean crossings comprise only a "small fraction" of the overall death toll.
For the first time, Italian authorities were able to learn from the whistleblower a detailed description of the traffickers, based in North Africa, Italy and other European countries, and their activities, police said.
The Eritrean gave harrowing details of how traffickers would not hesitate to kill migrants lacking sufficient funds to pay their passage and sell their organs "to Egyptian traffickers", Italian media reported the man as telling investigators.
Italian officials said the Eritrean had revealed the smugglers were also importing khat, a drug traditionally largely grown in the Horn of Africa, and organising bogus marriages for refugees.
A police raid on a Rome apartment last month as part of their investigations into the traffickers turned up a cash pile of 526,000 Euros ($585,000) and $25,000 as well as a detailed register of the group's activities.
The largest migrant crisis Europe has seen since World War II has seen more than 10,000 migrants perish since 2014, including more than 2,800 so far this year, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said last month.
The closure of the Balkan route earlier this has sparked an increase in people risking perilous sea crossings via the Central Mediterranean to Italy.