A MAJOR operation has been launched to target a gang suspected of being involved in human trafficking of women who have been subjected to serious sexual abuse.

More than 50 police officers raided several addresses in Stockton and Middlesbrough this morning.

Seven warrants were issued and six people arrested.

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Operation Cotton, which also involved raids on properties in South Yorkshire, is part of a long running investigation into allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation and abuse.

Police smashed a door down in Bowesfield Lane, Stockton, and questioned one man before leading him away in handcuffs.

As he was taken past reporters and into a police van, he looked confused and said: "What's happened?"

Before he was led out, an immigration officer could be seen through the front window, speaking to the suspect in the untidy front room of the terraced house.

Police officers could be seen checking a pair of trousers before carrying out a thorough search of the property.

Officers were also investigating two nearby properties but did not appear to have made arrests there.

Assistant Chief Constable Jason Harwin said: “Our message is clear to those who are victims of this vile abuse - there is hope.

“We are on your side; we can and will help. We are here for you, and we are stronger and more determined than your abusers.

“To those who traffic in human beings, in human lives, who seek to gain fear or weakness, our message is unequivocal - we are strong, we are determined and we will bring you to justice.”

The investigation was launched following claims victims had been subjected to rape and sexual abuse carried out by a number of men across the region.