Medhanie Yehdego Mered (C), 35, is pictured with Italian policemen as they land at Palermo airport, Italy, following his arrest in Khartoum, Sudan, on May 24. REUTERS/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
ROME (Reuters) - An Eritrean extradited to Italy from Sudan this week and accused of being a people smuggler has denied the allegation and says he is the victim of mistaken identity, his lawyer said on Friday.
Italian and British officials announced on Wednesday they had secured the arrest of Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged trafficking kingpin. However, when images of the man were published, friends and family said he was an Eritrean refugee named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe.
Italian magistrates interviewed the suspect for the first time on Friday in front of his lawyer. "I was arrested by mistake," lawyer Michele Calantropo quoted his client as saying.
If confirmed, this would be a huge blow for both Italy and Britain, which had hailed the extradition of Mered, nicknamed "the General", as a rare victory in the struggle against international human trafficking.
A legal source, who declined to be named, said Italian and British investigators had given the Sudanese authorities precise information about the mobile phone Mered was using and believed the arrested man had been in possession of the phone.
However, Italian authorities did not have any access to him in Sudan following his arrest on May 24, the source said.
Calantropo said he had not immediately sought the release of his client from prison, adding that magistrates needed to look into the question of his identity.
"It is a complex case," he told reporters outside the Rome jail where the initial round of questioning had taken place.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Isla Binnie)