|In addition to online activism, Anonymous has increasingly come to be aligned with the Occupy movement [Reuters]
Twenty-five suspected members of the Anonymous hacking movement have been arrested in a sweep across South America and Europe, Interpol says.
The arrests were made in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Spain by local police working in collaboration with Interpol's Latin American information technology crime group, a statement released on Tuesday from the international police agency said.
The suspects, aged between 17 and 40, are suspected of planning co-ordinated cyber attacks against various state and non-state institutions, including Colombia's defence ministry and presidential websites, Chile's Endesa electricity company and national library, and several other targets.
Six of the suspects were arrested in Chile, four in Spain, five in Colombia and 10 in Argentina, Spanish police said.
The arrests come after an ongoing investigation, begun in mid-February, which also led to the seizure of 250 items of IT equipment and mobile phones at 40 locations in 15 cities, Interpol said.
"Operation Unmask was launched in mid-February following a series of co-ordinated cyber-attacks originating from Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Spain," said the statement.
"This operation shows that crime in the virtual world does have real consequences for those involved, and that the Internet cannot be seen as a safe haven for criminal activity," said Bernd Rossbach, Interpol's acting director of police services.
South American arrests
In Santiago, the Chilean capital, police official Jamie Jara told a news conference that authorities had arrested five Chileans, including two 17-year-olds, and a Colombian.
The case in that country is being handled by a prosecutor who specialises in computer crime. The suspects are being charged with altering websites and engaging in denial-of-service attacks on websites of the electricity companies Endesa and Hidroaysen.
The charges carry a penalty of between a year-and-a-half and five years in prison, he said.
Jara said the arrests resulted from a recently begun investigation and officials did not yet know if those arrested were tied to any "illicit group".
"For now, we have not established that they have had any special communications among themselves," he said.
The six suspects did not know each other and were released after voluntarily giving statements, police said, though they would likely be ordered to appear in court to face possible charges relating to online crimes.
General Carlos Mena, the commander of Colombia's judicial police, said that while no Colombians had been arrested in his country, some had been arrested elsewhere.
He said that other countries were providing information and Colombian authorities were looking into various leads.
No official statements were released in Argentina, though Argentinian media reported that at least 10 people were arrested in the country.
Earlier on Tuesday, police in Spain announced that they had arrested four people suspected of being hackers associated with Anonymous, which is a loose-knit network and does not have a structure or formalised hierarchy.
The suspects were arrested in connection with an investigation into attacks on Spanish political party websites.
They were accused of hacking the websites of political parties and companies and adding fangs to the faces of leaders in photographs online, and publishing data identifying top officials' security guards, Spanish police said.
A police statement said two servers used by the group in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic had been blocked.
It said the four included the alleged manager of Anonymous' computer operations in Spain and Latin America, who was identified only by his initials and the aliases "Thunder" and "Pacotron".
Two of the suspects were in detention while one was bailed and the fourth was a minor who was left in the care of his parents.
Interpol is headquartered in Lyon, France, and does not have any powers of arrest or investigation. It primarily helps police forces around the world co-ordinate their investigations and activities, facilitating intelligence sharing.
On Wednesday morning, the agency's website was temporarily unavailable in several countries.
Anonymous has become increasing politicised over the last year, particularly over issues of online rights and the international controversy over whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
Authorities in Europe, North America and elsewhere have made dozens of arrests in recent months, and the group has increasingly targeted law enforcement, military and intelligence-related targets in retaliation.
Earlier this month, the group secretly recorded a conference call between US and British law enforcement agents tasked with hunting members of the group down.