The drugs industry has welcomed the news that 32 people suspected with being involved in criminal activity associated with animal rights extremism have been arrested in a Europe-wide police operation.

The arrests were made after police executed a number of warrants to enter and search premises at 29 addresses in the UK (mostly in the south-east of England), two in the Netherlands and one in Belgium. The raids were the culmination of a two-year investigation into an alleged conspiracy of extremism targeting a variety of organisations and individuals, most notably Huntingdon Life Sciences. 27 people remained in custody as of last night.

HLS, a contract research organisation, has been the target of attacks from animal rights activists for years now and was forced to move its headquarters from Cambridgeshire in the UK to the USA at the beginning of the decade as attacks on its staff and clients intensified. Assistant chief constable Adrian Leppard of Kent police told a news conference that “clearly with HLS they are a major victim of this type of criminality and they are involved in this investigation”.

Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, which represents biotechnology companies in the UK, said that news of the operation “will act as a great fillip to the medical research community across Europe,” adding that “we very much hope that such a coordinated investigation will help to put an end to the criminal activities of those individuals who remain determined to disrupt ground-breaking medical research."

The news comes at a time when a significant decline in the incidence of animal rights extremism has been seen in the UK. At the beginning of the year, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry issued a report noting that new measures to stem violent harassment by animal rights extremists had a palpable impact last year. Not only were there no personal assaults on people involved in the use or supply of animals for medical research, but 'home visits' by animal rights protestors fell sharply to 20 from 57 in 2005 and a peak of 259 in 2003.