They arrested four people who they said were involved with a security company that charged tens of thousands of pounds to find children in contested custody cases.
Police said the conspiracy involved former special forces soldiers who, armed with weapons, tasers and pepper spray, launched daring and risky operations to recover children living with one parent after a divorce or separation and reunite them with the other parent.
The syndicate employed “contractors, for the most part veterans of special corps from the armed forces, ready to offer their operational skills to whoever was willing to pay them handsomely enough”, police said.
Among the arrests in Sicily was a Ukrainian former Olympic sailing champion.Larysa Moskalenko won a bronze medal at the Seoul Olympics but in 1993 moved to Sicily, where she now runs a luxury boat rental business.
She allegedly hired out powerful speed boats which were used to recover children from countries in North Africa and bring them to Italy, from where they were reunited with their parents in other European countries.
Ms Moskalenko, 50, was arrested on Thursday by police in Palermo, Sicily, along with two boat captains, Antonio Barazza and Sebastiano Calabrese and another local man, Luigi Cannistraro.
Arrest warrants were issued for Per Ake Helgesson, reportedly a former member of the French Foreign Legion, and Daniel Bakke, two Swedish employees of ABP World Group, a Norwegian security company with offices in the UK, Cyprus and the Middle East.
They have been in prison in Tunisia for more than a year after being arrested in November last year in connection with a plot to help a Norwegian woman recover her daughter from her estranged Tunisian husband.
The month before they had been more successful - a child was taken from a Tunisian man, transported to Sicily by speedboat and then reunited with its mother in Norway. The firm charged up to €250,000 (£212,000) for such operations, the Italian police said.
A warrant was also issued for Martin Waage, the chief executive officer of the security firm, which specialises in what it calls “parental child abduction cases”.
The firm claims it only offers assistance in locating and recovering children who have been taken, in defiance of court orders, to other countries by estranged partners.
“ABP World Group is dedicated to assisting those parents who need help in locating, rescuing and returning their abducted children home safely. We offer worldwide services regarding parental abduction,” its website says.
Mr Waage denied that any of his employees had done anything wrong, insisting that they never carried weapons and operated within the law.
The firm provided “security and surveillance” for parents attempting to snatch back children from estranged partners, he told The Telegraph.
The company had worked for clients all over the world, including on behalf of Britons locked in custody disputes with ex-wives and husbands in Africa and Asia.
“It’s way too traumatic for us to take the child, the parent would grab the child themselves.
“We are not a criminal organisation involved in kidnapping or trafficking,” he said.
“We are a serious company working on child recovery, operating on the right side of the law. We never use weapons – that would mean the situation was already too dangerous for the child involved. We have friends in Interpol and we cooperate with the police.”
He admitted that the firm had hired Ms Moskalenko to provide a speedboat, which was kept on standby off the coast of Tunisia to act as back-up for the operation in Tunis.
“We never go into a country like Tunisia without having a back door (exit strategy),” Mr Waage, 42, a former paramedic and close protection officer, said. “She is innocent - she just hired us a boat.”
But police in Italy say he and the other accused could face charges of kidnapping and human trafficking.