Six victims of human trafficking were rescued from brothels in Northern Ireland today as police moved to smash a prostitution ring run by the Chinese mafia.
ne man was arrested in Belfast and a man and woman detained in Kidderminster, England during a co-ordinated operation across the UK.
All of the rescued women are understood to be Chinese nationals who police believe were tricked to come to Northern Ireland on the promise of cleaning and nannying jobs.
They were then forced into prostitution under threat of extreme violence to them or their families, according to officers.
Five were rescued in dramatic morning raids by armed officers on two non-descript terrace houses in the affluent Lisburn Road area of Belfast.
Shocked bystanders on the busy shopping street looked on as Police Service of Northern Ireland Tactical Support teams forced their way inside with battering rams.
The other woman was found when police swooped on a property in Londonderry.
Twenty human trafficking victims have now been rescued in Northern Ireland in little over a year.
A record book recovered from one of the houses in Belfast indicated that the three women inside had seen 15 males clients yesterday alone - business that made their captors £1,500.
PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Essie Adair said the operation was the culmination of a six-month investigation in which officers were assisted by two trafficking victims rescued earlier this year.
"Today has been a significant outcome," he said.
"We have six females rescued as victims of human trafficking, we have three arrests in relation to human trafficking and criminal prostitution."
He added: "Our evidence is that these victims are the subject of horrendous living conditions, they have been subjected to violence to force them into becoming prostitutes so there is a very high level of fear among these women."
Mr Adair said the Chinese crime gang was based on mainland UK but had heavily infiltrated Northern Ireland.
"I would say it is probably a fair assessment that there is Chinese mafia behind it," he said.
The detective added: "They are making vast sums of money from the misery of these poor women."
The six women have been taken to specialist PSNI care suites for victims of crime.
The suspect arrested in Belfast is a 39-year-old local man. The 40-year-old woman taken into custody in Kidderminster is Chinese while the man, 41, is believed to be from the UK.
The PSNI-led operation involved officers from the West Midlands and West Mercia police forces. The UK-wide Serious Organised Crime Agency's Vulnerable Persons Unit also provided support.
Two vacant properties that police believe had been used as brothels in the past - one in Belfast, the other in Newry - were also searched.
Mr Adair said in most cases the houses were rented on short-term leases from landlords who had no idea what they were being used for.
He said many of the women were already living in mainland UK and were duped to travelling across the Irish Sea by phoney job adverts appearing in Chinese language newspapers.
The detective said police were committed to tackling the growing problems of human trafficking.
"I would say just over a year ago we didn't have a trafficking problem within Northern Ireland but we've seen it escalate, we know it's here and we are taking steps to get on top of it and rescue more victims and to make amenable to the courts those who are responsible."
Northern Ireland Security Minister Paul Goggins said: "Human trafficking is a vile and wicked crime and I would like to congratulate all those officers involved in the PSNI-led multi agency operation today.
"This had dismantled a Chinese organised crime gang involved in human trafficking in Northern Ireland."
He added: "The victims will receive care and support to help them recover from their horrific ordeal and I am delighted that the arrangements we made earlier this year with Women's Aid and the Migrant Helpline are now available for victims of human trafficking."
The UK Human Trafficking Centre, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the UK Borders Agency, Women's Aid, the Poppy Project and the Migrant Helpline were also involved in the multi-agency operation.