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updated 6/15/2009 4:26:24 PM ET 2009-06-15T20:26:24

Italian and U.S. authorities have broken up an international group that hacked into long-distance phone lines and may have provided funds to terrorists in Southeast Asia, officials said Monday.

Police conducted raids across Italy on Friday to arrest five Pakistanis linked to a hacking operation in the Philippines. On the same day, Federal authorities in New Jersey charged three people living in the Philippines in connection with the case.

The group electronically broke into the systems of international telecommunications companies and sold the access codes in several countries in a multimillion-dollar fraud, Italian police and the FBI said in separate statements.

By routing conversations from the call centers onto the hacked networks the suspects stole 12 million minutes, worth $55 million, from companies including AT&T, the FBI said.

Italian authorities shut down 10 call centers in various cities, according to police in the northern city of Brescia, where the probe was centered.

Two of the Pakistanis, a husband and wife, were arrested in Brescia, while three more were found in the central town of Macerata. Italy has also issued a sixth warrant for a Filipino citizen.

The six are accused of fraud for illegally accessing and selling the codes to the call centers — stores that are widely used by immigrants in Italy to phone home.

Much of the proceeds were sent to the Philippines and may have been forwarded to Islamic extremist groups in the region, including the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, said Carlo De Stefano, head of Italy's anti-terrorism police unit.

"There are strong suspicions and some clues, but nothing concrete," De Stefano told The Associated Press on Monday. He did not elaborate.

De Stefano said officers from the FBI office in Newark, New Jersey, had helped the Italians in the investigation and would take the lead in probing the destination of the money.

Authorities in Spain, Germany and Switzerland were also conducting investigations as groups similar to the one uncovered in Italy are believed to have operated in those countries, he said.

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