A police operation targeting sex abusers in the North East has so far identified 278 victims and hundreds more complainants.

Operation Sanctuary exposed the rape and abuse of underage girls in a sex ring which operated in deprived areas of Newcastle and Gateshead.

Four trials at Newcastle Crown Court heard how vulnerable girls were groomed by men who gave them alcohol and drugs before raping them at parties known as sessions.

In what is the largest sex abuse investigation the Northumbria force has ever undertaken, 461 arrests were made after 703 potential complainants came forward.

Members of the gang have been imprisoned for a combined time of more than 300 years.

At the final trial, 17 men and one women were convicted of, or admitted to, charges including rape, supplying drugs and inciting prostitution.

Twenty young women told the court about the systematic abuse they had been subjected to over a number of years.

They told how teenagers were plied with cocaine, cannabis, alcohol and the designer drug M-CAT(mephedrone) by the gang.

They were then raped or persuaded into having sex with the lure of the drugs.

Despite the convictions, there has been criticism of the Northumbria Police for paying a convicted child rapist almost £10,000 to spy on the parties.

The trial heard that the informant had a previous conviction for drugging and raping an underage girl and inviting another man to do the same.

The means can never justify the ends in a situation like this where you are putting a convicted child rapist in contact with very vulnerable children, said NSPCC spokesman Jon Brown said.

It absolutely beggars belief and were are staggered at the NSPCC to understand that this has happened.

However, Chief Constable Steve Ashman suggested that the means justified the ends.

I can categorically state that there are vulnerable women and girls today who have been safeguarded, and dangerous men behind bars, by using this tactic, he said.

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Jim Hope, Head of Complex Casework for the Crown Prosecution Service, paid tribute to the courageous victims.

Many of those convicted during the course of these trails have systematically been groomed and abused: vulnerable teenage girls and young women over a number of years for their own (the gang’s) sexual gratification.

Despite the abuses they have suffered, the victims have demonstrated great bravery in recounting their own distressing experiences in court.

Through their courageous actions they may well have prevented other vulnerable women and girls from falling victim to this group.

The Newcastle case is the biggest child sex investigation since the scandals in Rotherham and Rochdale.

A report into the abuse in Rotherham, which came to light in November 2010, found that at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013.

It branded the local council not fit for purpose.

Then, in 2012, there was widespread public outrage after nine Asian men were jailed after grooming five girls – aged between 13 and 15 – in and around Rochdale between 2008 and 2010.

Arrests or prosecutions of groups of men for similar abuse also took place in 11 towns and cities, including Oxford, Bristol and Aylesbury.

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(c) Sky News 2017: Gang ‘systematically groomed and abused’ nearly 300 teenagers in Newcastle and Gateshead

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