Alleged sex ring 'groomed vulnerable girls as young as 11 for rape'

 

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The Independent Online

Police are continuing an investigation into child trafficking in Oxfordshire after officers swooped on a suspected gang yesterday, arresting 12 men accused of preying on girls as young as 11 .

The men are being questioned by police over allegations they groomed 24 girls, aged between 11 and 16, for rape over a six-year period. And officers said they were keeping an open mind as to whether further arrests will be made.

"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," said Detective Superintendent Rob Mason of Thames Valley Police, which carried out the operation along with Oxfordshire County Council.

Detectives believe the gang targeted vulnerable girls in care or living rough and transported them around the country. The girls were described as "very, very vulnerable" and some are said to be so desensitised as to not consider themselves victims of any exploitation over the alleged abuses. Many were said to have been "known" to children's services.

"These arrests show that not everyone who is trafficked crosses a border and trafficking is also a domestic issue that affects vulnerable British children," said Klara Skrivankova, Anti-Slavery International's trafficking programme co-ordinator.

The charity said that between April 2009 and March 31 last year, there were nearly 1,500 reported cases to the National Referral Mechanism, the government's flagship system for monitoring suspected trafficking cases. A spokesman said 26 per cent of the people referred were exploited as children.

"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," said Jon Brown of the NSPCC.

The men, aged between 21 and 37, were arrested on suspicion of 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.

More than 100 officers took part in raids as the force executed 14 warrants across the city as part of operation Bullfinch. Police became aware of the alleged abuses after some of the girls known to child services went missing and sounded the alarm on their return.

Police handed out flyers in Oxford, thought to be the centre of many of the alleged offences, and posted a video on YouTube to reassure residents and urge potential victims to come forward.