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23 March 2012, 06:56
Six men have been charged over allegations of an exploitation ring in Oxford which preyed on runaways as young as 11 for Britain's sex trade.
Detectives investigating claims 24 vulnerable girls under 16 were groomed for rape and prostitution are questioning the suspects after dawn raids across the city.
Amid fears more girls may have been involved, patrols of officers took to the streets of the university city to hand out public awareness leaflets.
Police believe gang members targeted British children in care or living rough and transported them around Britain over a six year period.
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 from their homes.
Detective Superintendent Rob Mason, spokesperson for the investigation: "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.
Much of the police activity today was centred near St Aldates police station in central Oxford. More than 40 uniformed officers and community support officers were handing out A5 flyers about the operation.
Police chiefs also posted a video on YouTube to reassure community members and urge any potential victims to come forward.
Superintendent Chris Sharp, the force's Oxford commander, said: "I understand today's events will have an impact on residents.
"My neighbourhood policing teams will be carrying out reassurance patrols in the area issuing information about the operation with contact details if people need further information, or would like to report any activity in relation to this investigation.
"There are individuals and groups who may seek to take advantage of the young and vulnerable and it is our job, working with our partners, to prevent whatever form of abuse takes place and bring those responsible to justice.''
Oxfordshire county councillor Louise Chapman, cabinet member for children, young people and families, said the council's focus was now on care for alleged victims.
Peter Davies, chief executive at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, commended the police action.
"Tackling this devastating form of child abuse is challenging for police forces and other agencies, so I'd like to congratulate Thames Valley Police on these arrests,'' he said.
Jon Brown, of the NSPCC, added: "We know gangs who traffic children are highly organised and ruthless. And even if the children are intercepted by the authorities and put into care they are sometimes tracked down again by the people exploiting them and spirited away to suffer more abuse.
"Trafficking is a major problem which requires urgent action and today's 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.
"However we must continue with a strong, co-ordinated approach from all the relevant agencies if we are to tackle this dreadful form of child abuse and end the misery it brings.''
If you have any information about this type of crime, you can contact Thames Valley Police on the non-emergency number 101.
If you don't want to speak to police and don't want to leave your name contact the Crimestoppers charity on 0800 555 111.