BRUSSELS — Police in Italy, Austria, Romania and Slovakia arrested 22 people Thursday as part of an investigation into the suspected siphoning of hundreds millions of euros in post-pandemic relief funds from the European Union.

The 600 million euros ($650 million) were part of Italy’s post-pandemic money, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office said.

The EPPO said it suspects a criminal organization of having diverted the non-refundable funds from the Italian National Recovery and Resilience Plan between 2021 and 2023.

The Italian program is funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility, a multi-billion-euro plan that was devised to help EU countries breathe new life into their virus-ravaged economies.

According to EU figures, Italy’s national recovery and resilience plan is the largest in the bloc, worth 194.4 billion euros ($211 billion) in grants and loans and representing 10.8% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2019.

The EPPO said financial police from Venice, Italy, executed an order for freezing issued by the pre-trial judge on assets worth more than 600 million euros. Financial police in Venice said luxury flats and villas, significant amounts of cryptocurrency, Rolex watches, Cartier jewelry, gold and luxury cars were also seized.

“With the support of law enforcement agencies from the other Member States involved, 22 individuals have been arrested in Italy, Austria, Romania and Slovakia,” the EPPO said.

“Eight suspects have been placed under pre-trial detention, whereas (another) 14 suspects are held under house arrest, and one accountant was prohibited from practising his profession. The premises of the suspects and of the investigated companies have also been the target of searches and seizure of evidence.”

The EPPO said the criminal organization allegedly used false corporate balance sheets as they applied for non-repayable grants to support fictitious small and medium-size companies expanding to foreign markets.

The criminals are suspected to have been working in cahoots with a network of “accountants, service providers and public notaries” to get the money they transferred to bank accounts in Austria, Romania and Slovakia. The EPPO said the suspects used advanced technologies, such as VPNs, cloud servers located abroad, crypto-assets and artificial intelligence software.

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