Is suspected people smuggler extradited to Italy the wrong man?

Story highlights

  • Friends claim the man extradited for people smuggling is the "wrong man"
  • Mered Medhanie is one of the world's most-wanted people smugglers

(CNN)Friends of a man arrested and extradited on suspicion of being a people smuggling mastermind say police have captured the wrong man.

Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) says it is aware of the claims following an international operation to capture one of the world's most-wanted people smugglers.
    Known as "The General," Mered Medhanie, 35, was arrested and extradited to Italy after being accused of being a key smuggler of people from Africa to Europe.
    Mered Medhanie is believed to be responsible for the Lampedusa tragedy in 2013, in which more than 300 asylum-seekers drowned.
    However, friends of the arrested man say his identity has been mistaken.
    A spokesperson for the NCA told CNN it was aware of the reports: "This is a complex multi-partner operation and it is too soon to speculate about these claims."
    Despite the claims, the NCA is "confident in its intelligence gathering process," it said.
    Friends on Facebook have named the extradited man as Medhanie Tesfamariam and claim he is innocent.
    Medhanie was arrested in Sudan after the NCA tracked his address in the country's capital Khartoum.
    It is also believed he is responsible for the October 2013 shipwreck off the Lampedusa coast in which more than 300 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea, drowned in sight of the Italian Island.
    The body of a drowned migrant is unloaded from a Coastguard boat in the port of Lampedusa.
    "Medhanie is a prolific people smuggler and has absolute disregard for human life," Tom Dowdall, deputy director of the National Crime Agency, said in a statement.
    "Medhanie no doubt thought he was beyond the reach of European justice but we were able to support the Italians by tracking him down to Sudan," he said.
    Italian authorities had intercepted telephone conversations to confirm Medhanie was coordinating trips on the Mediterranean to Europe, the NCA said.
    In one conversation, Medhanie "was heard laughing about the fatal overloading of migrant ships," the agency said.
    More than 2,500 migrants have died while attempting to cross into Europe this year.