The leaders of a Bosnian ring of girl pickpockets in Paris ordered their charges to steal €300 ($525) a day or be beaten, burned with cigarettes and sometimes raped, French officials said yesterday.

Police in France and Italy have arrested the alleged organisers of the ring of girls - children and teenagers - who were ordered to pick pockets and snatch purses in the Paris subway and other tourist spots.

The ring ran on similar lines to the Fagin-trained gang of boys in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.

Christian Flaesch, director of judicial police in Paris, described the operation as "medieval".

The ring is believed to have brought in nearly €4 million ($7m), officials said, with one girl allegedly stealing €100,000 in a single day.

The ring's alleged "patriarch," a 58-year-old Bosnian, used the money to buy luxury cars and property in Italy, and he also gambled some of it away in casinos, Paris Prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin told reporters.

The patriarch, who was not named, was arrested in Italy with his sons, ages 27 and 33, the French officials said. France had sought their arrest, and they are expected to be extradited.

In total, 18 people have been taken into custody in the case, and most are expected to face charges in the coming days.

The network recruited girls in Bosnia and brought them to France, where they were taught how to steal. Some of them were "sold" to the ring by their families, the police official said.

The girls "had a [daily] objective of at least €300" the prosecutor said. If they didn't reach the target, "they were hit, burned with cigarettes and raped".

Marin said the ring was the largest, most organised ever uncovered in the Paris area.

The inquiry started in 2008, when French investigators were astonished that so many young pickpockets questioned gave their last name as "Hamidovic," apparently a pseudonym used by the ring's youths. Out of 333 people questioned for purse snatching in the Paris subway in 2008, more than half identified themselves as "Hamidovic."

The girls also said they were under 12 years old, which in France ensured they could not be prosecuted.

In October 2008, three girls accused the alleged ringleaders of rape and torture. Other girls have since come forward.

An investigating magistrate was named in June last year to work on the inquiry into trafficking of minors, acts of torture and barbarism.

- AP