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British Police Arrest 7 in Drowning Deaths of 19 Chinese Workers

Police in Britain said they have arrested 7 people in connection with the drowning deaths of 19 Chinese shellfish gatherers in the Morecambe Bay area of northwest England.

Lancashire police say more searches of addresses in the Merseyside area and more arrests are expected in the coming days. The focus of the investigation is on who employed the Chinese laborers, some of whom were recent immigrants.

The deaths occurred last Thursday when the shellfish workers, called cockle pickers, ventured out too far into the treacherous stretch of water and were overcome by the rapidly advancing tide.

The 17 men and two women who drowned were all Chinese. Britain's Home Office says the victims, mostly in their teens and 20s, probably had been brought into the country illegally.

The coroner for the region, Howard McCann, said identifying the victim is proving to be difficult. "Some of the deceased, I understand, are known to the immigration authorities and, hopefully, with them we shall get positive identification fairly quickly," he said. "The difficulty is going to be with those who do not have any connection with the immigration authorities, you see, and the question is where do they come from? Who are they?"

The Chinese embassy here is helping in the investigation.

In a related development, Britain's Home Secretary David Blunkett unveiled plans to establish a new national police agency that would tackle criminal gangs, such as those involved in the people smuggling trade.

The Serious Organized Crime Agency will have some powers similar to those of America's FBI. The agency is not expected to become operational until 2006.