LONDON (Reuters) - Police forces across Britain have arrested 660 suspected paedophiles during a six-month covert operation to find people accessing indecent images of children online, Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) said on Wednesday.
Doctors, teachers, scout leaders, care workers and former police officers were among those detained in the action, which involved 45 police forces around the United Kingdom.
The NCA said more than 400 children had been "safeguarded" thanks to the operation.
"This is the first time the UK has had the capability to coordinate a single targeted operation of this nature," NCA Deputy Director General Phil Gormley said in a statement.
"Some of the people who start by accessing indecent images online go on to abuse children directly. So the operation is not only about catching people who have already offended – it is about influencing potential offenders before they cross that line."
Of the 660 people arrested, 39 were Registered Sex Offenders, meaning they already had a conviction for a sex crime. However, the majority, some of whom had unsupervised access to children, were not known to authorities.
The NCA, Britain's equivalent of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, came into operation last October with the aim of better coordinating police action on issues such as child sex abuse and organised crime.
Britain has been shaken in recent years by revelations that some of its best known celebrities from the 1970s and 1980s were involved in child sex abuse.
Veteran entertainer Rolf Harris was jailed this month for repeatedly abusing young girls, while police revealed in 2012 that the late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile had been a prolific child abuser.
The revelations have prompted a flood of accusations from people who say they were sexually abused as children.
After a series of allegations that the political establishment systematically covered up child abuse by a number of well-known politicians in the 1980s, Prime Minister David Cameron's government launched an inquiry last week to find out whether public institutions had failed to protect children from sexual abuse.
However, the NCA said the current operation was not aimed at historical crimes.
It was unable to detail how many suspects had been charged, saying inquiries were continuing. But those who had been charged were accused of offences ranging from possessing indecent images of children to serious sexual assault.
"The vast majority of forces around England and Wales are dealing with an unprecedented increase in the number of reports of sexual abuse of children," said Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Policing Lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations.
"Forces are investigating exploitation of children and young people by groups and gangs, non-recent abuse including large scale investigations into abuse in institutions over many years and sexual abuse by parents and family members."
(Reporting by Michael Holden, editing by John Stonestreet)