THE HAGUE (Reuters) -Police in five European countries have arrested 39 people in a major cross-border operation targeting an Iraqi-Kurdish gang which smuggled migrants across the Channel to Britain, the EU's law enforcement agency Europol said on Wednesday.
Europol said the network could have smuggled as many as 10,000 illegal migrants to Britain over the past year and a half and netted as much as 15 million euros from their criminal activity.
"This is the most significant operation ever mounted against smuggling operations across the English Channel, especially with this phenomenon of small boats," Europol deputy executive director Jean-Philippe Lecouffe told a news conference.
Police officials said the gang was one of the most active criminal networks smuggling people from France to Britain in small boats.
Police forces in Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands were involved in the operation.
One of the key suspects, a 26-year-old Iranian-Kurdish man, was arrested in Britain along with five others. Germany arrested 18 people, French police nine and Dutch police six suspected gang members.
Police also seized more than 1,200 life-jackets, some 150 rubber boats and around 50 engines as well as tens of thousands of euros in cash, firearms and drugs, Europol said.
Asked about the likely impact of the crackdown, Matt Rivers of the U.K. National Crime Agency said: "Given the number of boats we seized yesterday (...) we can expect a fall in the number of crossings in the immediate future."
Official figures show that more than 28,500 people were detected arriving in England last year after making the dangerous cross-Channel journey on small boats and the British government is under heavy public pressure to halt the flow.
The government hopes to start sending some of the illegal migrants to Rwanda but that plan - widely criticised in Britain and internationally - is being held up by legal challenges.
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Gareth Jones)