By Khalid Abdelaziz
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Eritreans in Sudan said on Thursday that a man extradited to Italy and accused of being a kingpin in an international people-smuggling ring was actually one of their friends and police had arrested the wrong man.
Italian and British officials said on Wednesday they had worked together to secure the arrest of Medhane Yehdego Mered, nicknamed "the General", in Sudan and hailed his extradition as a rare victory in the struggle against human trafficking.
Italian police released a video of the man they said was Mered arriving at an airport in Rome, but two Eritreans who live in Sudan told Reuters on Thursday it was a case of mistaken identity.
Instead the man is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, an Eritrean refugee who wanted to emigrate to Europe, the two friends said. Other Eritrean witnesses in Sudan told Britain's Guardian newspaper the same thing.
"I know personally the man arrested and extradited to Italy and he is the wrong person. He came to Sudan recently and still cannot speak Arabic, but his first name is the same as Medhane," Haile, a 45-year-old Eritrean refugee in Sudan, told Reuters.
A second Eritrean man, Tisfai, said: "For sure the person who was arrested is not the General... It is difficult to capture the General because he is like a ghost, moving from one place to another."
Both men declined to given their full names for fear of reprisal by gangs or Sudanese authorities, they said.
Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) said on Wednesday it helped track down Mered in Sudan. In response to the Guardian article, an NCA spokesperson said: "This is a complex multi partner operation and it is too soon to speculate about these claims."
Palermo prosecutors are scheduled to hold a first interview with the alleged smuggler on Friday in Rome, where he is being held.
Because they have numerous recordings of Mered in telephone conversations, prosecutors are considering the use of voice recognition software to help determine whether they got the smuggler or someone else, judicial sources said.
The court's chief prosecutor, Francesco Lo Voi, told Reuters he had no comment at this time, but Ansa news agency quoted Lo Voi saying "the arrest, delivery and extradition to Italy were officially communicated by the National Crime Agency and Sudan authorities through Interpol."
Two lawyers have been named to defend the Eritrean man held in Rome. Neither was immediately available for comment. He was detained in Khartoum by Sudanese police on May 24 on an international arrest warrant, and was brought to Italy on a state plane late on Tuesday.
Tisfai said the man who was arrested was "lucky because he will be able to seek refuge in Europe and get financial compensation from Rome for what happened to him."
(Additional reporting by Wladimir Pantaleone in Palermo, writing by Steve Scherer and Crispian Balmer in Rome.)