Three Lithuanian visitors have become the latest Eastern European would-be thieves to find that Britain?s airports are not an easy touch. And a nationwide response has been put in place to discourage and detect yet more

Police and airport management are aware that organised criminals from Eastern Europe have in recent months been trying to target UK airports to carry out large scale duty free shop theft, usually of small sized items such as perfume, toiletries, clothing and cigarettes. They have been flying from one airport to another, usually on budget airlines, before going home. A co-ordinated national response, codenamed Operation Premier, has now been set up to exchange intelligence between airlines, UK Borders Agency, police and security staff at every UK airport and in Eastern Europe.

Mantas Bilevicius, a 22-year old Lithuanian, flew into Gatwick Airport one Saturday afternoon in February, and was due to catch a flight back to Lithuania on the following morning.

At 4.10am on the Sunday morning Bilevicius was in the “World of Duty Free” store, airside in the South Terminal at Gatwick. He was seen acting suspiciously, with a large empty bag, by two alert members of store staff. Bilevicius was swiftly found by police in an airside bar in the Terminal, and was identified by the store staff. Police searched him and found in his bag 16 bottles of perfume, valued at £885, from the “World of Duty Free” store.

Bilevicius denied being part of an organised group, stating that he did not know why he took the perfume, but he thought he could sell it back home. However, he was charged with theft, pleaded guilty at Crawley Magistrates Court the following day and was immediately sentenced to 6 weeks imprisonment.

On Saturday 3 April Juozas Butkevicius and another man, both Lithuanians aged 21, were arrested for alleged shoplifting from Marks and Spencer “Simply Food” in the North Terminal. Butkevicius was subsequently found guilty and fined £65 by Crawley Magistrates. However the other man was released at the time of the incident due to lack of available evidence.

Then on the next day, Wednesday 7 April, Vitalij Gagin, a 21-year old Lithuanian, was arrested at Gatwick Airport for shoplifting of food items from WH Smiths in the South Terminal Departures. He appeared at Crawley Magistrates Court the following day, was convicted and given a conditional discharge. One of the conditions is that he can only be present at the Airport if he is a legitimate travelling passenger.

Police intelligence has identified some 50 individuals of various nationalities, often Latvian and Lithuanian, who are suspected of having being involved in different ways in trying to arrange such thefts at Gatwick, part of about 140 in total suspected of being involved across Europe.

A further four people are currently on bail to police at Gatwick alone, having been arrested on suspicion of being involved in thefts.

Detective Inspector Alasdair Henry of Sussex Police said; ?Busy airports can sometimes seem an attractive target for thieves of various kinds. But we are working together and raising awareness to ensure that this is not the case. We are reminding airport staff, and particularly those working in duty-free shops, to be on the alert and report any suspicions to police at once.

?This issue does not involve the vast majority of law-abiding travellers from countries across Eastern Europe who travel through airports whether on business or holiday. It is restricted to a small criminal minority and they are the only people we are targeting, through specific intelligence

?It is difficult to be exact at this stage, but we estimate that ten of thousands pounds worth of items are stolen at UK airports on a monthly basis by this means.?