VIENNA, Austria -- Yugoslavian and Austrian police jointly arrested four Yugoslavs for kidnapping children who were sold or 'rented' to pickpocket groups in Italy, police said Sunday.
Acting on a tip, police stopped the four Friday in Spielfeld near the border with Yugoslavia and freed eight boys and three girls ranging in age from 8 to 13, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.
Police believe the incident was part of an operation involving as many as 100 children who were smuggled into Austria, the Vienna newspaper Kurier reported.
From Austria they were sold or 'rented' to organized groups of pickpockets and professional beggars in Italy, where they were trained to be thieves, pickpockets and beggars, authorities said.
The ministry said the operation had been going on for a long time.
Kurier reported some of the children were sold in the United States for $5,500, but that report could not be immediately confirmed.
Police said the children, who appeared to be healthy, did not want candy or sweets, but were interested in cigarettes.
The Interior Ministry spokesman said police were trying to trace the homes of the children, who are believed mostly to be from the Kosovo province of Yugoslavia, which has a high concentration of ethnic Albanians.
He said Austrian authorities were cooperating with Italian and Yugoslav police in tracing the children's homes.
Three of the men were being held in Graz and the fourth in Spielfeld.
The four men were identified as Mustafa Mehmedaric, 60, Ramadan Bislimi, 35, Sukrija Beqen, 44, and Kenan Elmasov, 33, all born in Yugoslavia and of Moslem and Albanian nationalities.