More than 700 people could be victims of sexual exploitation in UK, police say
The operation that smashed a vile sex abuse gang has identified more than 700 victims of exploitation (Picture: North News)

The operation that smashed a vile sex abuse gang has identified more than 700 victims of exploitation, authorities have said.

That figure is expected to rise as council chiefs admitted there was evidence of sexual exploitation in ‘just about every other town and city in the country’.

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It comes as a three-year £4 million investigation in Newcastle led to 18 members of a sex-ring being being found guilty this week.

Northumbria Police Chief Steve Ashman said the wider investigation into sexual exploitation, known as Operation Sanctuary, was the largest and most intricate it had undertaken.

In total, officers had arrested 461 people, leading to 93 convictions, he said.

More than 700 people could be victims of sexual exploitation in UK, police say
Police Chief Constable Steve Ashman and Pat Ritchie ,chief executive of Newcastle City Council (Picture: North News)

Newcastle City Council said more than 700 victims had been identified so far as part of the operation.

Its chief executive Pat Richie said: ‘We do not believe that what we have uncovered in Newcastle is unique.

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‘Sadly, there is evidence of sexual exploitation in just about every other town and city in the country and anyone who says they do not have it are not looking for it.’

The gang members raped or assaulted the victims after drugging them or threatening them with violence at specially-convened parties.

Some of their victims were unconscious when they were abused.

More than 700 people could be victims of sexual exploitation in UK, police say
Newcastle Crown Court, where the Operation Shelter trials were held, the most significant investigation under the umbrella of Operation Sanctuary. (Picture: North News )

The offenders, predominantly Asian and in their 30s and 40s, echoed similar cases in Britain, leading to accusations that authorities avoided getting involved in case they were accused of racism.

Newcastle City Council said it had learned from the investigations in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford and hoped to pass on its findings.

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The results of the serious case review, examining how the exploitation spread unchecked for so long, will be published by the end of the year.

Some of the victims were in council care, while others were known to social services.

Council employees had been called to noise complaints during ‘sex parties’ where girls were being abused.

More than 700 people could be victims of sexual exploitation in UK, police say
Carolann Gallon, 24, pleaded guilty to three counts of trafficking for sexual exploitation. (Picture: North News)

Ms Ritchie said: ‘I’m sure there will be things to learn and we will act on them.

‘I don’t think you would ever be complacent about something like this and think we’ve got everything cracked.

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‘I think we all need to learn from one another in terms of this happening in different places.

‘What’s different here in Newcastle is that we are going out and looking for it.’

The suspicion that grooming gangs are active across the UK is shared by Northumbria Police.

More than 700 people could be victims of sexual exploitation in UK, police say
Northumbria Police Detective Superintendent Steve Barron and Chief Constable Steve Ashman (Picture: North News)

Chief Constable Steve Ashman said: ‘This is not unique to Tyneside. Whatever people might think about what we’ve done, we could not have worked harder than this.

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‘I think there’s every likelihood that this is happening in every town and city across the country but you won’t find it until you look for it.’

He added: ‘It is for individual communities to ask themselves whether they are doing all they can to eradicate such attitudes and behaviour.’

He told the Independent: ‘All the resources are still there and there’s plenty of work coming through from victims feeling they have the confidence and the strength to trust us.

More than 700 people could be victims of sexual exploitation in UK, police say
Nadeem Aslam (left) and Jahangir Zaman (Picture: North News)

‘We’ve got to be in a position where current and historic victims have the confidence to take that courageous step.

‘There may be many more victims out there and we are appealing to them to come forward.’

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Prosecutors said the gang, 17 men and one woman, had targeted 13 white girls and women, aged from 15 to their early 20s, in the city of Newcastle in northwest England between 2010 and 2014.

The offenders were found guilty following four trials, the last of which concluded on Tuesday.

Three have been jailed and the others are awaiting sentence.

A dedicated helpline was taking calls hours after the verdicts.  Investigators hope the publicity will encourage others to come forward.

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