ROME, June 9 (UPI) -- Italian authorities are investigating allegations the wrong man was arrested as part of a far reaching human-smuggling probe.
Investigators on Tuesday said they had arrested Mered Medhanie, a 35-year-old Eritrean man thought to be at the heart of the Africa-to-Europe migrant smuggling pipeline. But family and friends said Medhanie Tesfamariam Kidane, a 27-year-old Eritrean refugee, was instead arrested and extradited to Italy.
Francesco Lo Voi, the chief prosecutor in Palermo, said officials are "carrying out the necessary checks" to determine if the allegations are correct. He said it was "too soon to speculate" about the allegations, but has confidence in the intelligence-gathering process.
"The identification of the suspect, his arrest, his handing over and his extradition to Italy were communicated to us in an official manner by [Britain's National Crime Agency] and the Sudanese authorities through Interpol," he said.
Medhanie was arrested Wednesday as the leader of an international smuggling network that ushered migrants across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Prosecutors said he is responsible for the deaths of some 359 migrants, who died when their boat capsized in October 2013. He is known as "The General" because he styled himself on former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
After the much-hyped arrest, Kidane's family and friends began coming forward to say police had detained the wrong person. A woman who identified herself to BBC as his sister said her brother was "completely innocent." She said she saw photos and video images of a man who looked like her brother being arrested.
Another man, Hermon Berhe, who said he grew up up with Kidane, said it is a case of mistaken identity.
"I don't think he has any bone in his body which can involve such kind of things," he said. "He is a loving, friendly and kind person."