Twenty-six people have been arrested as part of a Europe-wide policing operation targeting the smuggling of people from Vietnam to the UK.

The arrests this morning in Belgium and France followed investigations by a Joint Investigation Team established after the deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals in a refrigerated trailer in Essex in October.

But Essex Police, who are leading the hunt for those responsible for those deaths, has said the arrests were not directly linked to its investigation into the deaths.

"We would like to reiterate that, although the Joint Investigation Team was founded in the wake of the tragedy in Grays on 23 October 2019, today's arrests are not linked to our ongoing investigation," it said in a statement.

Thirteen people were arrested and 16 properties searched in the Belgian capital Brussels, while the other 13 arrests were in the Paris area.

The operation was co-ordinated by EU crime agencies Eurojust and Europol.

In a statement, Eurojust said the suspects were allegedly part of an Organised Crime Group that smuggles refugees from Asia, particularly from Vietnam.

It believes the group has "transported up to several dozen people every day for several months".

The statement made a clear link to the Essex investigation, revealing that the 39 deaths there had prompted the creation of the Joint Investigation Team involving Ireland, the UK, Belgium, France, Eurojust and Europol.

It said judicial and policing authorities had worked closely together to map out the alleged activity of the crime group "and to determine the possibility of finding cross-border links to ongoing regional and local investigations of migrant smuggling activity".

The statement added: "These co-ordinated arrests are a strong signal to migrant smuggling groups that judiciary and law enforcement communities in the EU are joining forces to detect, investigate and prosecute this kind of serious organised crime."

This evening, Essex Police issued a statement asking the media to clarify "discrepancies" in the reporting of the arrest operation.

It said there was no direct link to its investigation into the 39 deaths.

A spokeswoman said the arrests were the result of a wider investigation into organised criminal gangs involved in human trafficking.