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10 detained in large-scale raid in Germany targeting human smuggling gang that exploits visa permits

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10 detained in large-scale raid in Germany targeting human smuggling gang that exploits visa permits
News

News

10 detained in large-scale raid in Germany targeting human smuggling gang that exploits visa permits

2024-04-17 17:53 Last Updated At:18:00

BERLIN (AP) — German authorities conducted a large-scale raid against an international human smuggling gang early Wednesday, police said in a statement.

More than 1,000 police officers searched dozens of homes, stores and offices across western and southern Germany and detained 10 suspects, including two lawyers.

A total of 38 suspected gang members, as well as 147 other people who allegedly paid to be smuggled by it, are being investigated, German news agency dpa reported. The two lawyers, 42 and 46 years old and from the Cologne area, are the main suspects, federal police in nearby Sankt Augustin said. The names of the suspects were not given, in line with German privacy rules.

The suspects are accused of having illegally taken advantage of special German immigration rules reserved for skilled foreign workers to obtain residency permits for around 350 mostly Chinese nationals — who don’t meet the needed criteria — in exchange for hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars).

Through their law firms, the two main suspects are said to have recruited wealthy foreign nationals for smuggling — mainly from China but also from Arab countries. Police said clients paid the law firms from 30,000 to 350,000 euros for illegal help with visas.

The suspected lawyers and their helpers allegedly used the money to set up fake companies, finance alleged residences and falsify alleged wage payments, keeping “not inconsiderable amounts” to enrich themselves, dpa reported.

The false residence permits were obtained from immigration offices in the western towns of Kerpen and Solingen, as well as Rhine-Erft and Dueren counties. One of the ten detained suspects is an city employee from Dueren, who was allegedly bribed to participate in the scam, dpa said.

Raids were carried out in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein, Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria, Hamburg and Berlin where police seized assets and collected evidence.

“So far, extensive evidence and not inconsiderable assets have been secured, including around 210,000 euros in cash," the authorities said.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser thanked police and prosecutors for the “massive strike against international organized migrant smuggling.”

“In the fight against smuggling gangs, we need precisely this high level of investigative pressure and this consistent crackdown,” the minister added. “We will continue this tough approach against organized migrant smuggling.”

The investigation focused on North Rhine-Westphalia, where the 10 suspects were detained.

Police officers stand near a building that is being searched in Solingen, Germany, Wednesday April 17, 2024. The Duesseldorf public prosecutor's office has arrested ten suspects in a large-scale raid against an international smuggling gang in eight federal states. More than 1000 officers from the federal police and the public prosecutor's office have been involved in the operation since the early morning. A total of 101 residential and business premises were searched. (Gianni Gattus/dpa via AP)

Police officers stand near a building that is being searched in Solingen, Germany, Wednesday April 17, 2024. The Duesseldorf public prosecutor's office has arrested ten suspects in a large-scale raid against an international smuggling gang in eight federal states. More than 1000 officers from the federal police and the public prosecutor's office have been involved in the operation since the early morning. A total of 101 residential and business premises were searched. (Gianni Gattus/dpa via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to eastern Europe next week as concerns mount about Russia’s advances in Ukraine, potential Russian interference in neighboring Moldova and pro-Moscow legislation being promoted in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the State Department said Friday.

Blinken will visit the Moldovan capital of Chişinau on Wednesday before attending a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Prague on Thursday and Friday. That meeting will be the military alliance's last major diplomatic get-together before leaders meet at a summit to celebrate NATO's 80th anniversary in Washington in July.

The trip comes just two weeks after Blinken made an unannounced trip to Ukraine to reassure Kyiv of Washington’s support in the face of intensified Russian attacks in its north. There are also signs Russia may be considering new actions in Moldova and is behind anti-Western moves in Georgia that the U.S. believes run counter to Moldovan and Georgian aspirations to integrate with Europe.

At his first stop in Chişinau, Blinken will meet Moldovan President Maia Sandu to reaffirm U.S. backing for Moldova's progress on joining the European Union, the State Department said. The top U.S. diplomat for Europe, James O'Brien, said Blinken would announce a “robust” support package for Moldova, where there are 1,500 Russian troops stationed in the disputed territory of Transnistria.

“There’s not a direct military threat that we see at this time, but there’s ongoing Russian influence operations, and that is of concern,” O'Brien told reporters. He did not give details of the support package.

Moldova, like Ukraine, is a candidate member for EU membership and has repeatedly accused Russia of conducting a “hybrid war” against the country, meddling in local elections and running vast disinformation campaigns to try to topple the government and derail its path toward joining the 27-nation EU.

Russia has denied the accusations, but the Moldovan government is wary of Moscow's intentions, particularly after Transnistrian authorities appealed to Moscow in February for “protection” due to what they said was increased pressure from Chişinau.

In Prague, Blinken will meet Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský and other officials to discuss support for Ukraine, including a Czech initiative to supply more munitions to Kyiv, before attending the NATO gathering.

With Ukraine as the top agenda item, NATO ministers also will be looking at developments in Georgia, which like Ukraine, aspires to join NATO and is embroiled in controversy over legislation that many believe is driven by Moscow and intended to thwart Georgia's Western aspirations.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the “Russian law” targeting media that has sparked weeks of mass protests, but the ruling party has a parliamentary majority sufficient to override her veto and is widely expected to do so.

The legislation would require media and nongovernmental organizations to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad. Critics say it closely resembles legislation the Kremlin used to silence opponents and that it will obstruct Georgia’s bid to join the EU.

Late Thursday, Blinken announced that the U.S. would impose travel bans on Georgian officials “who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia, as well as their family members. This includes individuals responsible for suppressing civil society and freedom of peaceful assembly in Georgia through a campaign of violence or intimidation."

Blinken's announcement did not identify anyone who has already been targeted, but it also said the U.S. would undertake a comprehensive review of U.S.-Georgia cooperation.

“It remains our hope that Georgia’s leaders will reconsider the draft law and take steps to move forward with their nation’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” he said. “As we review the relationship between our two countries, we will take into account Georgia’s actions in deciding our own.”

FILE - Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, April 4, 2024. Blinken will travel to eastern Europe next week as concerns mount about Russia's advances in Ukraine, potential Russian interference in neighboring Moldova and pro-Moscow legislation being promoted in Georgia. The State Department said Friday, May 24, that Blinken would visit the Moldovan capital of Chisinau on Wednesday before attending a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Prague on Thursday and Friday. (Johanna Geron, Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, April 4, 2024. Blinken will travel to eastern Europe next week as concerns mount about Russia's advances in Ukraine, potential Russian interference in neighboring Moldova and pro-Moscow legislation being promoted in Georgia. The State Department said Friday, May 24, that Blinken would visit the Moldovan capital of Chisinau on Wednesday before attending a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Prague on Thursday and Friday. (Johanna Geron, Pool Photo via AP, File)

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