12 held in child trafficking probe
Detectives believe they have smashed a child trafficking gang preying on runaways as young as 11 for Britain's sex trade.
Twelve men are being questioned in Oxford by police investigating claims 24 vulnerable girls under 16 were groomed for rape. Officers suspect gang members targeted children in care or living rough and transported them around Britain over a six-year period.
Amid fears more children may be involved, patrols of officers took to the streets of the university city to hand out public awareness leaflets.
The men - aged between 21 and 37 - are being quizzed over a string of offences including causing the prostitution of females under the age of 18, administrating drugs for the purpose of rape, trafficking, grooming and rape.Thames Valley Police became aware of the allegations after a number of girls were reported missing.
Detective Superintendent Rob Mason said: "We believe we have uncovered an organised crime group who have been running a business of selling young girls for sex. We have also identified a number of customers who we have reason to believe have used this service."
More than 100 officers took part in raids as the force executed 14 warrants across the city as part of an operation named Bullfinch. Police were not willing to comment on the nationalities of any of the suspects but sources said many of the offences centred in or around the Oxford area.
Many of the alleged victims were said to have been "known" to children's services.
Mr Mason, speaking later at the force's city headquarters, said: "The investigation has been very challenging. The girls are very vulnerable and a number of them do not consider themselves to be victims."
Sheila Taylor, director of the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People, said: "As always, our concerns lie with the young people who have been victims and (we) are very pleased to see a complete multi-agency team approach to assisting the recovery of the young people."
Jon Brown, of the NSPCC, added: "Trafficking is a major problem which requires urgent action and today's (Thursday) arrests show the police are taking a proactive approach, which is good news. Hopefully the children involved will get the protection and counselling they need."