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PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - Italy has arrested a Somali for kidnapping, extortion and rape against desperate Eritrean migrants in a case that shines a light into the brutal criminal gangs trafficking people into Europe from Africa, police said on Friday.
The case is based on testimony from the survivors of a shipwreck that killed more than 360 migrants off the coast of Sicily in October.
Elmi Mouhamud Muhidin, 24, was one of the leaders of an armed gang of about 50 Somali and Sudanese men who kidnapped 130 Eritrean migrants, including children, who they found walking through the Sahara desert between Sudan and Libya in July, an arrest warrant seen by Reuters said.
The Eritreans were taken to Sabha, Libya, where they were held in a single room for two weeks and tortured, the women raped, and forced to pay $3,300 each for their freedom and transport to the capital Tripoli, where they were handed to other smugglers, survivors said.
Muhidin was attacked and nearly lynched by his victims in the immigrant center on Lampedusa when he arrived there on October 25 after making the boat crossing from Libya himself, setting into motion the police investigation, the warrant said.
If convicted, Muhidin faces a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. He was flown to the Sicilian capital Palermo on Thursday from the southern island of Lampedusa, the goal of many of the thousands of migrants attempting the crossing from Africa in rickety boats. The Palermo court announced his arrest on Friday.
He has not yet spoken to a lawyer, been questioned by prosecutors, or entered a plea, investigators said.
The testimony of survivors of the Lampedusa tragedy, which killed at least 366, confirms the fears of humanitarian groups about conditions for migrants crossing unstable Libya, where even the prime minister was taken hostage by armed militia last month.
According to migrants' testimony, the 20 women in the group were repeatedly raped and offered to Libyan visitors "as if they were a cup of tea". The prisoners were tortured, the soles of their feet beaten with a hammer and once they were subjected to electric shock.
"They were treated like slaves," Cologero Ferrara, the Palermo prosecutor spearheading the investigation, told Reuters. "They were given a fistful of rice every three days and brutally beaten numerous times."
Libya is the departure point for two thirds of the boats that set out for Italy from North Africa. Since the shipwreck, Italy has stepped up navy patrols and is using drones to search for boats making the dangerous crossing.
Muhidin manned a machine gun mounted on a pick-up truck when the Eritreans were kidnapped, witnesses said, and was a commander at the compound where they were held.
After being separated from the group, an 18-year-old Eritrean woman interviewed by investigators said she had been abused and raped by Muhidin and two others.
"They threw me on the ground, held down my arms and covered my mouth, and poured gasoline on my head, which burned my scalp, skin and eyes," she said through a translator. "And then, not yet happy, the three took turns raping me."
All the women in the group were raped repeatedly, survivors said. Among the prisoners, only a four-year-old boy was spared the beatings and electrical shock, but he drowned in the shipwreck, witnesses told investigators.
Through wire transfers, most paid the extortion money or arranged to have it paid later, and were taken to Tripoli and handed over to another group of smugglers, who ran a camp housing 600 people.
The 130 Eritreans stayed there at least a month, surviving on a daily ration of bread and water, before more than 500 migrants were crammed onto the small fishing vessel that sank less than a kilometre from Lampedusa.
They paid the second criminal group $1,600 each for the crossing.
(Writing by Steve Scherer; editing by Barry Moody)