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UAE Nabs Eritrean "Most Wanted People Smuggler"


FILE: Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam

The United Arab Emirates on Thursday detailed its role in an international operation to arrest an Eritrean fugitive in Sudan accused of being "the world's most wanted" people smuggler.

Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam has been accused of being a smuggling kingpin, running a camp in Libya where hundreds of East African migrants seeking passage to Europe were allegedly kidnapped, raped and extorted.

Habtemariam, subject of two Interpol red notices by Ethiopia and the Netherlands, was arrested on January 1 by Sudanese police in coordination with UAE authorities, UAE interior ministry official Saeed Abdullah al-Suwaidi told reporters.

The Eritrean, on Interpol's radar since 2019, earned a reputation for "particularly cruel and violent treatment of migrants", Interpol said.

"We have now shut down one of the most important trafficking routes into Europe, which illegally moved thousands of migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, through Libya and into Europe," Suwaidi said in statement.

Habtemariam's arrest followed a joint UAE and Interpol investigation, beginning last year, that tracked illicit financial transactions made by his brother, according to Suwaidi.

The Eritrean will now face trial in the UAE for money laundering, and authorities will review the possibility of his extradition after the case is closed in the UAE, Suwaidi added.

Habtemariam was arrested in Ethiopia in 2020 but escaped custody after one year, and was later sentenced in absentia to life in prison.

Suwaidi said his arrest was "just the beginning" of hunting down the rest of Habtemariam's network, and the UAE is discussing with Interpol the possibility of launching another investigation into a major human trafficker.

Stephen Kavanagh, a director at Interpol, said Habtemariam was the "most wanted" criminal including in Ethiopia and the Netherlands.

The arrest "is a testament to the Interpol network, and what can be achieved when countries work together," Kavanagh said, thanking Ethiopia, the Netherlands, the UAE and Sudan for playing a "crucial role".

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