A suspected ringleader of a gang accused of smuggling thousands of people across the Mediterranean in “death trap” boats has been arrested in the UK.
The 40-year-old man is alleged to have orchestrated crossings of hundreds of migrants at a time from North Africa into Italy.
Officers from the National Crime Agency (NCA) detained the suspect on Wednesday afternoon as he was walking on a street in Hounslow, west London.
The Egyptian national is alleged to be linked to dozens of illegal boat crossings, the majority from Libya.
The NCA says it has launched more than 90 investigations into organised immigration crime and smuggling networks.
Darren Barr, senior investigating officer at the NCA, said: “People smuggling is an international problem and tackling this at every step of the route is a priority for the NCA.
“We suspect this man has been running his operation from the UK and masterminding the smuggling of thousands of migrants.
“The type of boats organised crime groups use for crossings are death traps, and sadly many people have died after incidents in the Mediterranean, which demonstrates the level of danger.”
Investigators say the suspect was working with people smuggling networks in North Africa to organise boats to bring over hundreds of migrants at a time, and was maintaining communication with criminal associates during the crossings.
A similar crossing in October 2022 saw more than 640 migrants rescued by the Italian authorities after they attempted to cross in a wooden boat from Libya.
It was taken into port in Sicily.
In another crossing, 265 migrants were rescued by the Italian coastguard from a 20-metre fishing boat found adrift in the Mediterranean in December.
The boat had left Benghazi in Libya.
And in April 2023, two further search and rescue operations were mounted following distress calls to the coastguard – in each case more than 600 migrants were on board each boat.
The suspect is being questioned on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration.
His arrest comes after a vessel carrying hundreds of people sank off the Greek coast last week.
At least 78 migrants are known to have died but many more are feared to have drowned.
The UN’s human rights office says that up to 500 people are still missing.
The NCA said the latest arrest is not believed to be linked to the disaster.