Police in Italy have arrested an Albanian couple accused of smuggling 36 children into Italy. Italian authorities suspect the couple is part of a child trafficking ring operating between Albania and Italy.

The Albanian couple led a normal life in Italy since 1991 and had regular work permits. They had three children of their own.

But during the past year, they traveled back to Albania 16 times. And police say that each time they returned to Italy, they smuggled children into the country, using the forged residency documents of their own children.

The children smuggled into Italy were all aged between eight and 16. They traveled on passenger ships from the Albanian port of Duress to the southern Italian port of Bari. But once they arrived in Italy, they disappeared.

Italian authorities say they suspect that the husband Ramis Petalli and his wife Xhuljeta Petalli are part of a child trafficking ring operating between Albania and Italy. The couple was arrested after a one-year investigation.

They are being held on charges of criminal association, kidnapping, and falsifying identity document to enter Italian territory.

Investigators are still trying to learn whether the children were stolen or kidnapped from their parents in Albania, or whether they were bought from desperately poor parents in dire need of money.

They also are trying to establish what happened to the children once they were in Italy. A nationwide search is on, although there are concerns the children may no longer be alive, or may have been taken to other countries.

Investigators fear the children may have been used for slave labor, child pornography or prostitution, or even organ trafficking. More than 3,000 mainly foreign children are reported missing in Italy every year.