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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - European police on Tuesday simultaneously arrested more than 100 people in 10 countries in what they called the biggest raid on a migrant smuggling ring in the history of the European Union.
The traffickers, based in Kosovo with links to the Turkish underworld, specialized in bringing migrants from the Middle East, especially Libya, Syria and Iraq, to Europe for thousands of euros per head, police told a news conference in Hungary on Wednesday.
Migrants, including children, were crammed into tight spaces on tourist buses, cargo trucks or ships, and sometimes had to hike through winter forests to cross borders, according to presentations by police chiefs from various countries.
Sometimes, migrants died en route, including one incident when 16 drowned in the river Tisza near the Hungarian-Serbian border in 2009, police said.
On Tuesday more than 1,200 police officers raided 117 locations at the same time and made 103 arrests, after more than a dozen countries cooperated for a year and a half to track down the traffickers, police said.
"We really significantly disrupted this main organization," said Nicholas Dove, the head of the organized crime unit of the European Union's Rule of Law Mission to Kosovo.
The migrants were taken on a route through Turkey, he said.
"This is not a cash on delivery business; this is a cash up front business," Dove said. "Some people who were let down ended up in places where they didn't intend to be."
"Then there's the knock-on effect of people being illegally in countries in Western Europe with no status there. How do they exist? They get involved in street crime. This is hugely damaging to human beings but also society and the economy."
Officials said that about 20 members of the organization remained unknown to them, and pledged to track them down too.
Police said they had intelligence that might lead them to other trafficking rings, adding that European cooperation against this type of crime was getting more efficient.
Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Jason Webb