DOZENS of homes have been raided in an international police investigation into the theft of valuable rhino horns.
An organised crime gang, linked by European security chiefs to a large traveller family originally from the west of Ireland, is believed to have netted goods and artefacts worth €40 million in a string of robberies.
Armed gardai and officers from the Criminal Asset Bureau (Cab) raided homes in the Rathkeale and Raheen areas of Limerick and in Newmarket in Cork.
One of the gangs suspected of involvement in the thefts has been nicknamed the Rathkeale Rovers.
A large amount of documentation, a small amount of cash, some artefacts and paintings were recovered and confiscated during the operation.
No arrests were made.
The raids were targeted on the three towns as part of the ongoing investigation into the assets and financial affairs of a gang suspected of extensive criminality.
They are involved in labour exploitation, counterfeiting, tarmac scams, tobacco smuggling and the theft of rhino horns and rare Chinese cultural artefacts, Europol have said.
Over the last three years, there have been more than 60 recorded thefts of rhino horns and Asian art from museums and private collections across Europe.
For the last two years, Europol has been tracking a suspected Irish organised crime gang which it warned was one of the most significant players in the illegal global trade in rhino horns.
CAB officers in Ireland have been involved in the Europol initiative to target the international crime gang.
Agencies in the UK, including the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) and local police forces, have carried out more than 30 searches, including some in Northern Ireland, as part of the investigation.
The raids in Rathkeale, Raheen and Newmarket were carried out to gather evidence, a garda spokesperson said.
The latest rhino horn theft hit museum bosses in Ireland in April this year, despite them being put into storage for safekeeping.
Three masked men broke into the National Museum of Ireland's Collections Resource Centre (CRC) in a warehouse in north Dublin and tied up a security man before leaving an hour later with four rhino heads holding eight horns.
Due to the level of the robberies, some European museums have replaced the real rhino horns with copies and some of these were stolen, one in Germany.
Rhino horn, which consists only of keratin, is sold in Chinese traditional medicine and claimed to be anything from an aphrodisiac to a cure for a hangover or cancer or even just a decoration.
Conservationists warn those using the illegal product that they would be better off biting their nails.
Meanwhile, 19 people were arrested across the UK in connection to the international investigation.
Seventeen men and two women are currently in custody awaiting questioning following dawn swoops.
Hundreds of officers from 26 police forces and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) were involved in the operation and searches are continuing at various locations.
Warrants were executed in London, Sussex, the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Northern Ireland.
Cambridgeshire Police, who are leading the operation along with SOCA in the UK, said all of those arrested were being held on suspicion of conspiracy to burgle except a 54-year-old woman, who was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and assisting an offender.
So far, eight people have been convicted and jailed for their roles in the break-ins at a series of museums and auction houses in the UK.
Much of the stolen property has since been recovered but several valuable items are still missing.
Chief Constable Mick Creedon, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) lead for serious organised crime, said: "Today's operation follows a long and complex pan-European investigation involving officers from 26 police forces and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
"The series of burglaries last year had a profound effect on museums and similar institutions and we are committed to bringing all those who were involved in the conspiracy to justice.
"Many of the stolen Chinese artefacts are still outstanding and a substantial reward remains on offer for information which leads to the safe return of those priceless items."