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The arrest of more than 100 people after search warrants were executed on 17 massage parlours in the Lower Mainland is just the first stage in a continuing probe of possible human trafficking, the RCMP said yesterday.

"Step one is what we did last night," RCMP Corporal Norm Massie said of the raids in Coquitlam, Surrey, Burnaby, Richmond and Vancouver.

"Hopefully we will be able to demonstrate Canada's ability to help these women."

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The search warrants were executed Thursday evening after a nine-month investigation called Project E-Pleat. More than 200 officers investigated whether massage parlours were being used as fronts for prostitution and human trafficking.

The investigation began after complaints from "a number of sources," the RCMP said yesterday at a news conference at its federal operations building in Surrey.

The backgrounds of the complainants were not disclosed.

Of the 108 people arrested, 78 were women working in the massage parlours who were classified as potential victims by police.

Four massage parlour owner-operators and 26 clients were also arrested.

The RCMP did not release the names of the massage parlours that were raided.

All of those arrested were released and were told to appear in court at a later date, which does not necessarily mean they will face criminal charges.

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Police said some of the customers or the owners of the massage parlours could face charges of procuring or keeping a common bawdy house.

The Mounties are investigating whether there are ties to organized crime, but Cpl. Massie said the only common link discovered so far was the nature of the offence.

The RCMP was assisted in the raid by investigators with the Canada Border Services Agency, the provincial victims services division of the Solicitor-General and the ministry of Children and Family Development.

Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking interpreters were on hand to speak to the women.

The RCMP said 52 of the women were referred to victim response teams.

"Fortunately, all indications suggest there were no children involved," said Robin Pike, a spokeswoman for the Children and Family Development.

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The youngest woman arrested in the raid is 21.

The women working in the massage parlours were offered a spot in transitional housing, although Cpl. Massie confirmed that no one accepted the offer.

The overwhelming number of people arrested in the raids are Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

"There were six foreign nationals," said Rob Johnston, director of enforcement with the Canada Border Services Agency. None of the six is in the country illegally, Mr. Johnston said.

The RCMP is continuing its investigation and will try to gain the trust of the women found working in the massage parlours, Cpl. Massie said.

While the raids have not yet uncovered evidence to lead to a criminal charge of human trafficking, he suggested the women may have been provided with legitimate immigration documents for a fee, which they would have to pay back through prostitution.

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The RCMP spokesman added that human trafficking can also occur in a domestic context, with some women being required to move to another part of the country where they are forced into prostitution.

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