HUNDREDS of leaflets urging victims of a suspected region-wide sex ring to come forward have been handed out on the streets of South Tyneside.
The move is a stepping up in Operation Sanctuary which was launched last month by Northumbria Police after allegations of a series of sexual offences against women were made.
The probe has been primarily focused on Newcastle, but addresses in South Tyneside and Gateshead have also been targeted.
Three weeks ago, a man was led away by police from a property in the Chichester area of South Shields as part of the operation.
In the past few days, leaflets have been handed out by police to businesses, taxi drivers, guest houses and the public in South Tyneside calling for anyone who believes themselves to be a victim to come forward.
The leaflets also highlight signs people can look out for and what they should do if they are suspicious about activity taking place at a particular address or the behaviour of an individual or group.
Police say victims are likely to be vulnerable in some way – with drug or alcohol habits or have been in care – and are also interested in properties where girls and young women are seen coming and going.
It says: “If it doesn’t look right and doesn’t feel right, we need to hear from you.”
Operation Sanctuary is looking into allegations that groups of men are befriending vulnerable young girls and women with the intention of using them for sex.
Northumbria Police Deputy Chief Constable Steve Ashman said: “We’re asking people to be vigilant and report any information they have to police as our investigations continue.
“The leaflets are another way of encouraging the general public, as well as businesses, to look out for certain signs which may point toward someone being vulnerable who is potentially involved in this activity or is at risk of being taken advantage of.
“These crimes that are happening behind closed doors, in local areas, and it’s likely that people living or working nearby recognise the behaviour we’re describing.
“This is clearly listed in the leaflets being given out by officers.”
He added: “We’re grateful for the information we have received so far but would ask people to continue to get in touch.
“We all have a collective responsibility to make our communities a no-go area for this type of behaviour.”
The following advice on what to look out for has been issued by police:
* The victims are all vulnerable in some way, This could be that they have a chaotic lifestyle, drug or alcohol addiction or are, or have been in care. This may be someone you recognise or someone you think may be on the verge of becoming involved.
* These crimes are happening behind closed doors, in local streets and it is likely that people living nearby recognise the behaviour we describe.
* There may be groups of men going into properties with teenage girls or one or two women;
* You might see women under the influence of drink or drugs who might appear distressed in some way. We need this reported to us. This allows us to check and may avoid someone else becoming a victim;
* Some of the girls and women may frequent certain businesses which brings them into contact with these men. You may see them hanging around;
People are asked to contact police on 101 or in an emergency 999.
OPERATION Sanctuary is a Northumbria Police operation which was launched last month.
It is believed the women and girls are often under the influence of alcohol or drugs and it’s suspected they are then subjected to sexual assault or rape.
To date, 30 people – 28 men and two women - have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to rape and are currently on bail pending further inquiries.
As the operation continues, a specialist team of detectives are looking at all information handed to them.
Meanwhile, officers are urging anyone who has information regarding the operation to contact them.
Deputy Chief Constable of Northumbria Police Steve Ashman said: “We’re grateful for the information we’ve received so far but would ask people to continue to get in touch. The investigation continues at pace and we’re committed to doing everything possible to protect the girls involved and our communities.
“I would appeal to anyone who has been the victim of any sort of sexual assault to come forward. Support is available and we’re here to help.
“Our absolute priority is to protect any victims or potential victims and we are working closely with those involved and our partners to ensure they receive the appropriate support.”
Anyone with any information or concerns is asked to contact police on 101 ext 69191, quoting reference “Operation Sanctuary”, or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
Advice and support is also available via Victim Support on 0845 277 0977 or Childline on 0800 1111.