HAMPSHIRE police raided six homes across the county yesterday as part of the UK's largest ever clampdown on animal rights activists.

The early morning raids were the culmination of a two-year probe by police forces across Britain and Europe into extremist animal rights groups and the individuals behind them.

Across the UK more than 700 police officers took part in the action and 32 people were arrested and detained for further questioning, including suspects in Belgium and Holland.

Hampshire officers arrested nine people, male and female, aged from 19 through to 52.

Police chiefs say the raids were vital to protect victims being targeted by extremist groups, like workers at Hampshire's Wickham Laboratories, and that more arrests and operations will follow as the intelligence gathered is analysed.

Chris Bishop, technical director for Wickham Laboratories, said: "Wickham Laboratories supports the right to lawful protest so long as the company is able to continue with its legally required and licensed work, and our staff can carry out their work and private lives without fear of intimidation and harassment.

"However a minority of extremists continually seek to force change by the use of violent, criminal activity. We are pleased to see positive action being taken today by the police and think this sends a strong message to criminal extremists."

Addresses in Gosport, Church Crookham, Bramley, Basingstoke and Waterlooville were raided.

Senior police officers have so far refused to say whether the action was prompted by specific threats against individuals, but it is understood that more attacks, particularly against workers involved in animal testing, had been planned.

During the arrests, officers found more than £100,000 in cash and took away scores of computers and mobile phones.

Homes and businesses across Surrey, Sussex, Kent, London, Wales, Scotland, Manchester, Liverpool and Yorkshire were also raided. Two further raids took place in Holland, and one in Belgium.

Assistant Chief Constable Adrian Leppard, from Kent Police, said: "While animal rights extremism affects the whole of the United Kingdom, there are a greater proportion of incidents in the south-east.

"This led forces in the region to work together to investigate a range of criminal offences including burglary, conspiracy to blackmail and offences under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act targeting animal research organisations."

One animal rights activist distanced herself from the actions of extremists.

Nicknamed The Granarchist', Helen Nelson, 80, from Gosport, said: "No one I know of who is involved in animal rights protests would ever hurt anyone - it's simply not what we are about."