DOZENS of underage girls are being groomed into prostitution and drug taking by predatory males operating in East Lancashire.

The Evening Telegraph can exclusively reveal girls as young as 12 have been targeted by gangs of men who pay the youngsters in cash, drugs, cigarettes and drink for sexual favours.

Police revealed in the past year, around 50 East Lancashire victims aged under 16 had been identified by special police and social services teams set up to combat the menace but they believe as many as 100 could be involved.

Many of the youngsters go missing from home each week to spend time with men who have groomed them for sex.

Officers said the predators, who initially approach the girls on the street, are predominantly Asian and community leaders have joined the fight to tackle the issue.

Police stressed, however, that the issue of grooming also involved men, predominantly white, who target girls through the internet.

Blackburn MP Jack Straw today expressed his deep concern and said he would be raising the matter immediately with the Home Office.

He said: "I was frankly unaware of the scale of this problem until the Lancashire Evening Telegraph highlighted it but it is one that we all must now address including the Asian community."

Supt Neil Smith of Lancashire Police said: "This is not a racist issue. It is about the exploitation of vulnerable young girls for sex.

"The majority of cases involve Asian males but there are also a significant proportion of cases involving white men using the internet.

"We are taking this matter extremely seriously and will take positive action to deal with the problem."

In an attempt to stamp out the abuse and help girls who are lured away from home, police in Blackburn, Darwen, Hyndburn and Ribble Valley launched a crackdown called Operation Engage last June but have now made it a permanent policing priority after discovering the extent of the problem.

At the same time police in Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale (Pennine division) ran Operation Fruition to identify the scale of the problem of girls being groomed into sexual exploitation by isolated groups of men.

Muslim leaders have also been holding special seminars at mosques across East Lancashire to raise awareness of the problem.

PC Helen Dean from the Engage team revealed that in the past 12 months, along with Alison Hartley, from Blackburn with Darwen Council's children's services, she has worked with 31 children who have been groomed into this abuse.

PC Emma Shaw, who is dedicated to dealing with all missing from home cases in the Pennine division, has worked with between 15 and 20 girls who had been groomed into sexual exploitation by gangs of men.

But they are only the girls that they had been able to connect with and they believe many more are being victimised.

Since June 2005 police have issued 65 warning letters to men in the Blackburn, Darwen, Hyndburn and Ribble Valley area who have been identified through intelligence for harbouring children away from the care of their home or social services.

And through PC Shaw's work with missing from home cases, Burnley police said they have achieved a 40 per cent reduction in the number of girls who are being groomed into sexual exploitation in the last 12 months.

Police said the Asian men often target girls by pulling up in cars and encouraging them to go out with them.

The girls who are targeted usually have very low self-esteem and are showered with gifts and attention before being pressured into providing sexual favours in return.

They become hooked on the attention they receive and then the drugs that they are given, often without their knowledge.

They will then drive the girls, who are from a wide variety of backgrounds, out to remote locations and leave them there if they refuse to have sex with them or go "chillin", the word used to describe the time when sex acts take place.

Burnley MP Kitty Ussher said: "I hope that as result of the work that the Lancashire Evening Telegraph has done we will be able to prevent more children from being targeted and going missing from home."

Salim Mulla, the secretary of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, said: "We are aware of what is going on and what has been going on and are monitoring this worrying situation very closely.

"We have had many many reports of this nature and are trying to get the message across, through our mosque network, about how important women and young women are in society.

"This is about respect for these women and through seminars we are teaching men about the important role of women in society and their responsibility to them."

Today the mother of one 15-year-old who has been recruited into prostitution spoke out after her daughter took an overdose to try and escape the circle.

The mum, who lives in the Grimshaw Park area of Blackburn, said despite fears over her own and her daughter, she felt compelled to try and safeguard other children in the area from "sexual predators."

She said: "I fear my daughter is going to end up either a drug addict, gang raped, infected with HIV or even worse killed. Her life means nothing to these people.

"This problem is massive in the Blackburn area and the parent of every teenage girl must be told what is going on.

"I feel hopeless. She is inundated with calls throughout the night from people not only across Blackburn but as far away as Bradford and Manchester and when I've answered and pretended to be her the things they have said to me have been disgusting."

Two men are on bail pending further inquiries in relation to charges of rape and abduction of girls from Blackburn.

And Pennine police have charged three local men with child abduction.

Police are also aware young males have also been targeted and they are now trying to identify victims.

PC Shaw said: "A lot of our work is based around building relationships with these girls so they feel able to discuss what has happened to them with us so we can gather intelligence and get the best evidence to secure convictions.

"These girls are victims and they have been manipulated and exploited. Most of the girls we work with are also missing from home but no two cases are alike.

"We have mobile phones the girls can call us on 24 hours a day if they need help, support or advice and we are now achieving success.

"Through our work girls are getting free of these circles and offenders are being convicted."