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Spain arrests 14 accused of defrauding families of missing migrants

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's Civil Guard has arrested 14 people for allegedly seeking to profit from the families of missing migrants from North Africa, promising them to find, identify and repatriate their bodies in return for money, it said on Wednesday.

The network lured victims by posting messages offering their services on social media, police said. The group allegedly spoke over several years with relatives in Morocco and Algeria whose family members were missing and feared to have died at sea while trying to reach the Spanish coast in small boats.

The Civil Guard said they offered to act as intermediaries with the Spanish authorities in exchange for money, using contacts with public officials in medical services to obtain photographs of migrants' bodies in some cases.

Families were then asked for the personal details of the missing people on the false premise of carrying out a number of services including searches, filing complaints, arranging DNA samples for the identification bodies as well as translations, the Civil Guard said.

The suspected ringleader was a Moroccan man who used contacts in north Africa to assure families his help was genuine, police said.

They searched 13 homes and seized nearly 70,000 euros($77,000) in cash, vehicles and documents in Spanish southern Mediterranean provinces of Murcia and Almeria, and inland Jaen.

The arrested individuals could face a range of charges including crimes of disclosure of secrets, violation of the respect for the dead, fraud, forgery, bribery and belonging to a crime organisation, among others.

The number of migrants arriving in Spain by boat up to March this year has risen more than four-fold to 13,485, compared to the same period a year ago, interior ministry data released in February showed.

Rights group Walking Borders said 6,618 people lost their lives during risky sea voyages trying to reach Spain in 2023.

($1 = 0.9135 euros)

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Lucy Marks)