Suspected people trafficker arrested after being picked up by LÉ Eithne
A suspected 'people smuggler' who was picked up by the LÉ Eithne, along with 646 desperate migrants, has been arrested by Italian Police.
Bairam Ltayef (24), a Tunisian national, was detained in the Sicilian capital Palermo after he was identified by refugees who were interviewed by officers.
It is understood that the crew of the LÉ Eithne were unaware he was a suspected trafficker.
He disembarked in Italy along with the hundreds more who were rescued from two crowded wooden barges by the Irish ship, about 50km off the coast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on June 29.
It is estimated that at least 1,850 people have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone, with many falling victim to human traffickers in their desperation to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
The state police said that they "identified and arrested" Mr Ltayef on suspicion that he was the "smuggler" of a boat of migrants.
A statement explained how the LÉ Eithne arrived in Palermo on June 30 to offload the migrants with the Italian police meeting the vessel to assist in the processing of the immigrants.
It said that, while police officers participated in the conclusion of rescue operations, they were also there to carry out "criminal investigations" and "above all" identify smugglers.
The statement said officers interviewed migrants throughout the night "whose stories have drawn atrocious images of poverty, misery and exploitation."
On the morning of July 1 Mr Ltayef was "recognised by several castaways" and was alleged to be the smuggler of a boat that left Libya with over 300 migrants on board. He was arrested and detained in a prison, the statement added.
A Defence Forces spokesman said he couldn't comment on the case for "operational security reasons".
He said that while the Irish ship was working "very closely with Italian authorities" it was on a "search and rescue mission, a humanitarian mission" only.
Lt Shane Mulcahy of the LE Eithne yesterday briefed the media on the ship's operations, which have seen a staggering 3,376 people rescued in less than two months.
He said that the Irish flagship had plans in place to deal with people smugglers if identified.
"It was something we were prepared for in every instance but luckily never had to use," he said
Lt Mulcahy emphasised that the crew's priority in its deployment was "purely from a humanitarian search and rescue point of view".
He was speaking as three government ministers visited the ship, docked in Valletta, Malta, and expressed their appreciation for the Naval Service personnel's life-saving work.
"On behalf of people in Ireland I want to say thank you, you have made us very proud as people," Defence Minister Simon Coveney said.