DETECTIVES have launched an operation to track down the thieves behind a string of thefts where large numbers of cigarettes have been stolen.

Operation Drench is being led by the priority crime team at Shirley CID.

Since November 21, police have recorded 26 crimes which are related to the cigarette thefts. These include break-ins at a number of newsagents and shops in Shirley, Bitterne, Eastleigh and Southampton. Most recently, convenience and Co-op stores have been targeted.

In addition, thieves have stolen cars, vans and high-powered motorcycles to use in the cigarette thefts.

Where motorcycles are used, there generally are two people on the bike, and they carry away stolen items in large bags. The thieves usually strike between 2 and 6.30am.

Detectives are appealing to the public to alert them immediately if they see motorcycles with two people in the area of convenience stores. They also want immediate information from people who hear metal security shutters being forced or shop windows being broken.

Shirley Detective Constable Paddy Coughlin said: “The big question, of course, is where are these cigarettes going? Have you been offered cheap UK branded cigarettes or do you know someone who has bought a quantity of cheap cigarettes? If so, the police need to know.”

Anyone with information to assist Operation Drench is asked to ring Shirley CID on 101. Anyone who witnesses a break-in or suspicious activity around newsagents or convenience stores should ring 999 immediately.