British police were tonight sifting through suspected cyber child porn seized in a series of raids across the country.
A total of 36 suspected internet paedophiles were arrested in the major operation, which was launched earlier today following a tip-off from US authorities.
The crackdown - codenamed Ore - targeted computer users accessing pay-per-view websites based in the United States.
The sites were selling images of sexual abuse of children as young as five.
US authorities tipped off the National Criminal Intelligence Service and today’s operation was co-ordinated by the National Crime Squad, Britain’s answer to the FBI.
Police raided 43 houses and flats and seized more than 30 computers, with large quantities of discs and videos.
The ages of those arrested ranged from 24-65, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Detective Superintendent Peter Spindler of the National Crime Squad (NCS) said: ‘‘We will continue these operations to protect children and show paedophiles that law enforcement agencies will find them regardless of which area of the Internet they use.’’
The web sites, which are not being named at this stage for operational reasons, acted as a shop window to other sites carrying similar images.
Those wishing to buy images had to give details of their credit cards, including billing addresses, and were sent an e-mail from the website with a user login and unique password.
Following the US tip-off, NCIS obtained details of customers who had subscribed to the websites between May 1999 and the summer of 2001 and its Serious Sex Offenders Unit identified a ‘significant number’’ of suspects.
Vincent Harvey, director of UK Tactical Services at NCIS, said: ‘‘We must remember that every image of a child being sexually abused is an image of a crime scene and each photograph is that of a victim.’’
Carole Howlett, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Association of Chief Police Officers spokesman on Internet child abuse, praised the operation - but said more still needs to be done to tackle the growing problem.
Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes, who chairs the British government’s task force on child protection on the Internet, said: ‘‘People who access child pornography are fuelling the widespread and often organised sexual abuse of children by paedophiles across the world.
‘‘Today’s operation is another excellent example of effective intelligence-led policing, international co-operation and co-ordinated police activity on the ground, and sends a clear signal to such criminals that they cannot hide.
Last year seven paedophiles were jailed following a NCS operation, code-named Cathedral, which focused on a closed Internet paedophile ring known as The Wonderland Club.
The NCS also led an unprecedented operation last year in which detectives in 19 countries simultaneously targeted 130 people suspected of accessing thousands of paedophilic images through Internet newsgroups.
The police forces involved in today’s operation were: Avon and Somerset, Cleveland, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, Essex, Grampian, Gwent, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Humberside, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Merseyside, Metropolitan, Northamptonshire, Northumbria, North Wales, North Yorkshire, South Wales, Strathclyde, Surrey, Sussex, Thames Valley, Warwickshire, West Mercia, West Midlands and West Yorkshire.