Police raids target guns acquired online

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The Independent Online

The homes of 270 suspected criminals were raided across Britain yesterday in the first national crackdown on illegal firearms and weapons that were bought on the internet.

The homes of 270 suspected criminals were raided across Britain yesterday in the first national crackdown on illegal firearms and weapons that were bought on the internet.

Among the targets were some of the country's most senior crime bosses. Police seized a range of weapons including shotguns, handguns, ammunition, explosives, stun guns, CS gas, and blank-firing guns which can be converted into weapons.

The operation reflects the growing concern that the Web is helping fuel Britain's growing gun culture. The raids, codenamed Operation Bembridge, stem from an investigation into a company based in France supplying illegal weapons advertised on an internet site hosted in the United States.

Details of about 270 people living in Britain who had bought from the website were obtained by the FBI after a request from the UK's National Criminal Intelligence Service and the Metropolitan Police. An intelligence source said British suspects included "a number of top- level organised criminals". The police have becoming increasingly concerned at the growing trend in converting blank-firing and deactivated handguns into lethal weapons. Underworld armourers specialise in converting these weapons, which are now used in the majority of shootings.

Yesterday's raids were carried out in most regions in the United Kingdom. More than 50 people were arrested.

In London, 11 men were arrested after raids on 18 addresses by 300 police officers. More than 20 weapons were seized, including two shotguns, two handguns, ammunition, four air rifles, an air pistol, CS gas and nine blank-firing guns.

Elsewhere, three explosive devices and machine guns were also found, although they were not bought on the internet. Illegal possession of a gun or ammunition now carries a mandatory five-year jail term.

The French police also launched an operation yesterday against the company supplying the weapons.

Alan Green, from the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), who co-ordinated yesterday's raids, said: "Operation Bembridge is a national proactive operation targeting people who have bought prohibited weapons over the internet.

Mr Green, who is also Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, added: "People must learn that it is still an offence to possess stun guns and CS gas in this country, even though they have been acquired abroad.

"The message from the operation is that if you have bought prohibited weapons over the internet you risk being arrested, charged and, if convicted, receiving a criminal record."

Commander Stephen James, from Scotland Yard's Specialist Crime Directorate, who led the raids in London, said: "Those who are involved in buying illegal weapons abroad in an attempt to evade British legislation face arrest and prosecution.

"Anyone who has bought a prohibited weapon wrongly believing it will provide them or their families with protection should think again."

According to Scotland Yard, 81 per cent of the guns seized in London are imitation, replicas or previously deactivated.