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French police dismantle European pickpocket ring

media A girl begging in the Paris metro. Most petty crime in the metro is comitted … Troy Holden via Flickr

French police have arrested the presumed head of the so-called Hamidovic crime ring, which operates throughout the country and in Italy using teenage pickpockets. After a three-month investigation and raids in southern France and Italy on Tuesday, police believe they have dismantled the network.

Among 19 people arrested on Tuesday was Fehmi Hamidovic, 58, from former Yugoslavia and suspected head of a clan that sent adolescents, mostly girls, to beg and pick pockets in cities throughout Europe.

"It’s a family network, with a patriarchal organisation based around the head, Fehmi Hamidovic," a judicial source told the AFP news agency.

He was wanted under an international arrest warrant, and was arrested near Rome with two of his sons. Thirteen other people were arrested in France - in Montpellier, Perpignan, and Aix-en-Provence.

They are alleged to be the adult leaders of the Hamidovic criminal network that recruited dozens of adolescents, mostly girls, who were forced to steal and pick pockets, often under the threat of violence.

According to police investigators, each had to bring in 300 to 1,000 euros a day to the heads of the network and was punished if they did not bring in enough, often with rape.

When stopped by authorities, all the girls would give Hamidovic as their last name, as a kind of label instituted by the chief.

French authorities estimate that more than 70 per cent of petty crime and thievery in the Parisian metro is committed by Bosnian youths, members of the Hamidovic network.

The organisation brought in more than a million euros in 2009. The money was reportedly  used to buy real estate and luxury cars, both in France and in Italy.

"They travelled a lot between France, Spain and Italy," an investigator told the AFP.

Fehmi Hamidovic has already been convicted in Austria for human trafficking.

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