25 arrested over online child abuse images
Twenty-five people have been arrested in the first joint police and National Crime Agency (NCA) swoop on those accessing online images of child abuse in Northern Ireland.
Steps have also been taken to safeguard and protect 32 Northern Ireland children deemed at potential risk from the detained individuals.
Four of the 25 have been charged to date, with more prosecutions anticipated once digital forensic testing of seized computer equipment is completed.
The operation - codenamed Jarra - commenced in May when the nationwide crime fighting agency finally became fully operational in the region, almost two years after it began work in the rest of the UK.
The delay was down to a political row over how to make NCA officers subject to the same accountability mechanisms that regulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
None of the children safeguarded were subjects in the indecent images. Instead, they would have had contact with those who have been arrested on suspicion of using the internet to access the abuse pictures.
Dr Zoe Hilton, head of child protection for NCA/CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) said children abused in the pictures would be from all over the world.
She delivered a stark message to those engaged in the crime.
"There is no safe place on the internet for anyone who seeks to look at or share indecent images of children, it's a very serious crime, they are leaving a digital footprint and we will find them," she said.
As well as the joint operation with NCA, the PSNI's pre-existing online child protection unit has made 21 of its own arrests since April - six of whom have been charged.
That brings to 46 the number detained on suspicion of accessing indecent images of children in the past six months in Northern Ireland.
Detective Chief Superintendent George Clarke, from PSNI's Public Protection Branch, said the NCA had "substantially" bolstered capacity for tackling online abuse images.
"Webs of this sort of activity are international, this sort of activity is not confined to one particular county, to one particular country - it's international," he said.
"It's truly huge in its scope - that's another advantage that the PSNI gain from working with the National Crime Agency, who do have an international reach."
He made clear Operation Jarra was just the beginning of the joint PSNI/NCA drive to combat the crime.
"There will be more operations, there will be more arrests, we will bring more people to justice," he said.
The eventual political deal at Stormont that enabled full empowerment of the NCA was made possible by the introduction of beefed-up oversight measures to ensure agency officers were accountable to the Northern Ireland Policing Board and subject to scrutiny by the independent police complaints watchdog, the NI Police Ombudsman.